How is the card made? How much do we know this fundamental element, which we use every day for the most varied uses? For example, how many people would be able to say in an approximate way how to make paper, and how many can instead explain specifically how to make paper in each step?
Paper is at the center of the creative process of all artists always. Even for painters who focus solely on canvases to paint, paper is always and in any case an obligatory passage, for sketches, for rehearsals, for graphics, and so on. In short, it is worth understanding how paper is made: today, we will see its history, how it was produced in the past, how it is produced today, and how you can try to produce it at home.
A brief history of paper
Talking about the history of paper makes a particular effect, for the simple fact that paper is the primary means through which, for centuries, we have been communicating and passing on our history. Therefore, we are talking about a product closely linked to our history and culture, which has gone to overthrow papyrus and parchment in an almost total way. Moreover, paper is a product that is easier to produce, cheaper, and simpler to use.
The origins of paper
But when does the history of paper begin? The origins of this material can identify between the first century BC and the first century after Christ. A dignitary made the first actual “paper” of the Chinese imperial court in 105 AD, Tsai Lun. It – probably perfecting a previously elaborated technique – began to produce sheets of paper by macerating tree bark, pieces of old cloth, and even old fishing nets.
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Therefore, in the Chinese imperial court, the card already existed from the beginning of the second century. This invention, however, was not shared with the rest of the world, quite the contrary. The method for making the paper remained within the country’s borders until the sixth century when the news finally leaked in neighboring Japan through a Buddhist monk.
In the meantime, paper production had slightly evolved, using plants with long fibers, such as bamboo, giant mallow, or mulberry, just what is now also called “paper mulberry.” For a while longer, however, the secret of paper production remained confined to the Far East.
Only in 751 AD did the Arab world get their hands on the techniques to understand how to make paper literally. The governor of the Baghdad Caliphate captured two Chinese citizens who, look at it, were paper makers by profession. This kidnapping, which took place on the Silk Road – precisely in Samarkand, Uzbekistan – changed the fate of the history of paper and humanity, bringing to the West a secret hitherto guarded very jealously.
The Arab process
In Samarkand, the governor of the Caliphate started the first Arab production of paper, using not the bark of the mulberry tree but instead other vegetables more available in that precise context, namely flax, and hemp. The latter, at the time, were widely used to weave garments and make the sails of boats. Many other paper mills were started up in a short time, particularly within the so-called Fertile Crescent.
The Arab procedure, similar but not entirely the same to the Chinese one, involved a first maceration of the vegetable fibers and rags in water. The processing continued until a homogeneous mixture obtains, then a large sieve was immersed and then raised to extract all the macerated fibers from the water. The layer of fibers thus got was then pressed and dried to obtain the sheet of paper, which finish with starch (rice) to become more suitable for writing.
Paper production in Europe
But when does paper production finally arrive in Europe? Well, this wonderful invention comes on our continent roughly a century after it comes into the world, and therefore starting from the eleventh century. In the meantime, the Arabs had begun to invade Northern Africa, especially Sicily and Spain. And it was precisely in Andalusian territory that the first European paper mills.
Were started – by the Arabs
However, it should not be thought that the spread of this new product for writing and painting was immediate. On the contrary, there was some resistance in the European courts, considering the paper was of lower quality than the parchment. The courts oppose the charter to the point of arriving at a simple mandate in 1211, with which Frederick II banned the paper for the drafting of public acts. In reality, this hatred of paper also had a technical explanation. As created by the Arabs, a piece finished with corn starch attracted greedy insects, making this material not very durable and therefore unsuitable for drafting essential documents destined to last over time.
The spread of the card in Italy
The Maritime Republics contributed to the spread of the charter in our country, with the Genoese – through trade with Spain – and with the Amalfi people – directly from the Arab territories. On the other hand, Venice had a decidedly minor role, not having the necessary orographic characteristics to build paper mills. Moreover, these factories had to be made at the foot of mountains and hills, with large running water flows. To produce paper, however, it was not enough to have a river or a stream available: many rags were also needed, which could not be collected continuously and in the same way. For this reason, at least initially, the production of the paper mills was somewhat discontinuous and challenging.