Paper journeys

About backrounds of handmade paper in Europe

During the past few years, I went to see paper mills and paper production in different places in Europe. I read somewhere at the time that paper production was learned in Spain (Catalonia) sometime in the 11th century from the Moors and then spread north, so that paper mills, where production began already in the 16th century, still exist in France, Germany and, for example, Bohemia. Paper was mainly produced from rags, in other words clothes made from cotton and flax fibres by grinding those vegetable fibres into a mass, whose thickness was regulated with water.

My own view of the start of paper production became more precise and diversified all at once when I visited the Amalfi Coast in Italy in December 2016 to see the oldest functioning paper mills in Europe.

Inside of over 1000 years old paper mill/museum.

Amalfi is located in the Salerno Bay in southern Italy. It was one of Italyís early four city-states along with Venice, Genoa and Pisa. In the 800-1300s, Amalfi had good cultural and commercial connections with Venice and Constantinople. It had a navy, which traded, for example, in Lebanon and the coast of Syria. It competed bloodily for Mediterranean trade with other Italian city-states and Cataloniaís Barcelona. For that reason, in the beginning of the 1000-1200s, many centres and paper mills specialised in the production of paper and ceramics were founded in Amalfi, of which a few still operate in the area. Neutral high-quality acid-free Amatruda paper meant for watercolour and other art use, for example, is produced in Amalfi.

This hard wooden press (with felts) takes water out of paper and those sheets start to dry.
On the roof of the mill water is guided to deep hopper wells which leads the flow to rotate the whole mill.

Being introduced to an old hydraulic paper mill in Amalfi was an unforgettable experience. The mill did not have the large visible wheel or millstones that I would have expected. The river that streamed down the valley from the mountains was directed to the roof of a stone mill building, in which water ran through to a winding open riverbed. The water was cleansed there due to a few trenches and gutters. The clear surface water flowed onward to a few deep wells, which narrowed down into funnels. The funnel well’s narrow lower end could be opened from below from the millís production space by twisting the crank, whereupon the water was released to the wheel built from metal/wood ladles with the pressure of the entire well. The wheel started to turn the axles of the large wooden hammers grinding the rags. The extra water disappeared or was directed into basins, in which the paper mass refined by the grinding hammers was mixed for lifting the sheets.

I was honoured to see how a technology based on the powers of nature (hydraulics), which was still functional, reliable and useful, was able to be created a thousand years ago. Of course the operating principle and structure of the mill had to be changed in the North, because Amalfiís system does not withstand the freezing of water. It could, after all, be that paper making skills spread specifically from Amalfi through Italy to elsewhere in Europe, because in the 1100s, the Vikings, among others, stayed in Amalfi for a long time. More on the history of paper production can be found, for example, here:

The Czech cubism poster of the permanent exhibition in Black Madonna House. The “cubist cube” in the middle is a typical abstract origami paper object but also a source of innovation in new ceramic art.

Another fine but different kind of destination with regard to paper production is in Bohemia, the current Czech Republic, where a paper mill was founded at the turn of the full Renaissance at the end of the 1500s. The Velké Losiny paper production museum located in the eastern JesenÌk mountain valley is a good destination, even though the travel time there from Prague by car is over 3 hours.

In Prague, the Museum of Cubism is well worth visiting. There, one can hypothesise on the impact of the geometry of paper folding on Czech constructivism, architecture and design, even if one does not pigeonhole them in Cubistic art. (they do not belong in it anyway!) One can participate in all of these experiences by visiting the web or even physically visiting a few interesting paper mills in Europe. See also the websites Paper mills/Museums link list regarding other destinations.