My first encounter with Amalfi paper began over a decade ago at a paper store in New York City. It wasn’t a wrapping paper but elegant stationery. I bought a set of writing papers and matching envelopes with a beautiful watermark, nicely packaged authentic Italian stationery. I remember thinking it would be a shame to use an inexpensive ballpoint pen to write so I also bought a traditional dip pen with a tiny ink bottle.
So the highlight of my trip to Italy was a visit to the Museo della Carta (Museum of Paper) to learn the secrets behind the ancient paper making methods used in the beautiful town of Amalfi.
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Amalfi Coast is a beautiful curvy coast line along the mountains and the sea. Unfortunately for me, I get car sick easily with zigzagging roads and couldn’t enjoy much of the beautiful views.
Once in the town of Amalfi, it was like going back to the 17th or 18th century. Walking through tiny stairs and tunnels, in front of me was an open circle plaza with a beautiful church in front of it.
From there, I walked about one kilometer through a shopping street with many quaint restaurants and shops selling pasta, meats, fruits, leather items, etc. It was just beautiful to stroll the street watching people greeting each other, children laughing, shop workers talking to the customers.
The paper museum was located at the end of the street with a little sign saying “Museo della Carta.”
Upon entering, I was greeted by friendly staff. After a small admission fee, I signed the guest sheet with a wooden Italian dip pen.
Museo della Carta was a paper mill for several hundred years and turned into a museum today. There used to be 12 paper mills in the little town of Amalfi though only one is still making paper today. The English guided tour started with a room containing water-powered machines used to pound fabric scraps into pulp by the use of giant wooden hammers from the 18th century. You can imagine using these machines were a huge improvement from the manual pounding with hand pestles in the earlier history of paper making. The main fiber sources in Amalfi paper making were recycled rags from cotton, linen and hemp and took about 24 hours to complete the pounding process.
Let’s not forget about the beautiful spring water they were drawing from the mountains of Amalfi. The clear, clean and fresh water was a key to produce high quality papers. (Just like making a good pizza!)
The next room had a large stone vat filled with water and pulp fibers. Paper makers first stirred the water with wooden paddle in order for the fibers to evenly separate in the water. Using a wooden mould with a screen which made from metal mesh woven wire stretched in all directions, the pulp fiber mixture was drained through the surface of the screen evenly.
The paper was then carefully transferred onto a felt sheet. A collection of papers and felt sheets were then put into a wooden press machine that squeezed out 85% of the water. The rest of the drying process were in a room with many small windows allowing air circulation without direct sunlight.
This drying process was much different from what I saw from paper making in Thailand where wet papers on the wooden moulds were placed outside in direct sunlight to dry.
The finished paper had a rough texture, suitable for drawing and water color painting. In order to create a smoother surface ideal for writing, a solution made from cooking rabbit remains (I believe that’s what I heard) was included during the paper making process.
The main purpose of producing wrapping paper in Amalfi back then was to use it for wrapping sugars and pastas. Instead of a single screen, large rollers were used to collect the pulp fibers in order to create a continuous roll of paper.
And guess what else was absolutely necessary in the paper mill in Amalfi?
… an espresso coffee machine, of course! You can almost imagine these hard working paper makers taking a break and chatting with cups of espresso in their hands!
Museum website: http://www.museodellacarta.it/ingresso.asp?l=2#_=_