Thursday, March 10, 2011


Every now and then during our travels in Italy we come across something so completely unexpected and so completely eyeopening that it makes us step back, shake our heads and just say, "wow," and think how lucky we were for coming across it. Our visit to Fabriano was just such an occasion.

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Our regular readers will know that this week we have been traveling off script, without the usual itinerary planned months ahead as we did in the first two weeks of our trip. Our purpose this week was to wander through the regions of Le Marche and Abruzzo, exploring and discovering aspects of these regions that we had not previously scratched beyond the surface. I even went back to Slow Travel's message boards, an online community of travelers with a very large Italian following, asking for advice for what to do during our Marche/Abruzzo wanderings. One suggestion was to visit Fabriano, a dot on the map about 70 kilometers inland from the coast, close to the border of Umbria. "To see the papermaking" the poster advised.

As we reported in our post about the Grottoes of Frasassi, we planned an itinerary to take in a few stops along the route to Fabriano and to spend the night there. We found a decent enough looking hotel on the internet, booked it in the morning and headed off on our adventures (read about them in "Grotto"). We overnighted in Fabriano, anguishing over where to eat dinner. We chose a trattoria outside town by the name of La Vecchia Cartiera and proceded to have an incredible local Marchigiana dinner, the highlight of which (at least in terms of food) was an antipasti of baked potato in a truffle and parmigiano fondata. The soft, hot, savory flesh of the potato played off the sharpness of the parmigiano, softened by its melted texture, the whole thing wrapped up in the earthy aroma of the local truffles. It was enough to make my eyes roll back into my head.

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But the best was yet to come. Not on a plate or in the delightful company of our fellow diners at the restaurant. The coup de grace was to follow the next morning in the form of paper.

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"Or Fabriano. To see the papermaking" was the recommendation on Slow Travel. It sounded mildly interesting, about as interesting as watching paint dry. But it promised to be a great conversation piece at cocktail parties. So in the morning, we checked out of our hotel and drove back to Fabriano town center to the Museo della Carta e della Filograna (the Museum of Paper and Filigree). This cocktail party fodder turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip, if not many a visit to Italy.

When we arrived for our 10:30 English language tour (they are quite serious at the Museum, with multilingual tours scheduled throughout the day), the tourguide had not yet arrived. So we took the opportunity to get some cash from the nearby ATM (which had moved across town) and move our car to a legal parking spot. The upshot is that we arrived for our 10:30 appointment a second time, at around 10:50, with the guide and another guest waiting for us, seemingly blaming us for being late. We begged apologies and started on our tour.

The Museum of Paper is located in an ex Domincan convent, an enormous two story building housing offices, a shop, exhibitions, working demonstrations and classrooms for educational groups. It is staffed by what appears to be a large number of passionate professionals, including our tourguide who spent the next hour and a half patiently explaining to us in careful detail the process of papermaking, its history and its importance to Fabriano and the world. Little did we know the pivotal role that this little town has played in the history of one of the most ubiquitous and important commodities the world has ever known.

And beyond all the incredible information we learned about the process of papermaking, it was the opportunity to reflect upon the importance of this invention to the history of mankind that was most inspiring. We have an intimate relationship with paper; it holds in trust for all of us the entire sum total of the world's knowledge, we use it to think, to dream, to communicate, to connect with one another. We develop a connection with it as school children and throughout our lives are comforted by its touch and feel, as well as the words, doodles and priceless art it lovingly preserves. It is so much an integral part of our lives, yet until I walked into the Museo della Carta e della Filograno I knew absolulely nothing about its origins or how it arrives in my office wrapped in packages of 500 sheets.

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I will not bore you with a data dump of all I learned in Fabriano. I would probably make some stupid errors in recounting what I heard and embarrass myself by showing my ignorance. Besides, I think anyone who visits central Italy should make a stop in Fabriano to experience this firsthand. But I will tell you a few things.

First, the paper we saw being made was handmade, fine grade paper, not your Office Depot 80 lb. bond. It is made, as it has been since the process was brought to Fabriano from China in the 13th century, using cloth rags that are cut into small pieces by hand and then pounded in a hammer mill into a soupy pulp in large water filled basins. That watery pulp is scooped up by hand from a vat on a porous wire screen that is rotated from side to side by the paper maker, like a prospector panning for gold, in order to spread the pulp evenly on the screen. This wet mass is then peeled from the screen onto felt where it is pressed (to remove excess water) and hung to dry. One of the technological advances introduced in medieval Fabriano was the addition of sizing, a coating of the cloth sheet with a gelatinous animal fat that was a byproduct of the tanning process, also a major industry in 13th century Fabriano, which rendered the paper waterproof and kept inks from being absorbed into the paper. The nearly finished paper was then smoothed by hand, using a special smoothing tool and hung to dry. Incredibly, each papermaker was able to make hundreds of sheets a day and at its height during the renaissance Fabriano boasted over a dozen paper factories. The industry was so important to the town that foreigners were banned from working in the factories and industrial secrets were heavily guarded, violators being subject to fines and even banishment.

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From the paper making exhibition we were shown how watermarks are made. These invisible images, practically magically embedded in the paper were originally used as a sort of trademark or guarantee of provenance and therefore quality. We were shown how simple watermarks are woven out of metal threads and sewn onto the screens, creating a bas-relief that creates differential densities of pulp fibers, that trap more light or, alternately allow more light to pass through, creating the ghost image you see when, for instance, you hold a bill to the sunlight. But the museum goes beyond demonstrating the basic filigree techniques, showing more modern techniques, including the chiarascura technique that uses carved wax models that are then electroplated to create incredibly detailed reliefs that are added to the screens, allowing the paper to exhibit vivid portraits. On the second floor of the museum, there is an extensive collection of historical watermarks, including one of President Grover Cleveland.

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I could go on and on, but I won't.  But if you ever overhear a stranger at a cocktail party holding forth about the incredible process of papermaking and how it was developed and perfected in a little town in the Le Marche region of Italy called Fabriano, chances are it will be me.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

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