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An historical travel across paper

The italian word for paper (carta) comes from the latin “charta” and means both the sheet and the material of which it is made. During the centuries it has meant, at times, the specific stuff used as support for writing: papyrus (english, french, german and spanish terms derive from it), later parchment and at last the cellulose mixture product that italian people still call carta.

Marco Polo, in a passage of his Il Milione, was the first italian to describe the chinese skill in paper making. He tells about paper banknotes circulating in the Kubilay Khan empire; following the empero’s command – says the famous venetian traveller – paper was produced from mulberry tree bark.

Actually the vegetal material used for money making at Marco Polo’s time was of a much higher quality than the stuff used in China since 105 a.D. when, according to most historical documents, Ts’ai Lun, emperor Ho-Ti’s minister, discovered how to make paper from many vegetal sources like tea or rice straw, bamboo and hemp rags.

Chinese emperors are told to have kept for a long time the secret on working techniques, that were diffused only during VII century, first in Korea, then in Japan.

In 751, after Turkestan battle, the arabian winners learnt the secret from chinese prisoners and established their own factories in many towns like Samarcanda, Bagdad, Damascus, Fez and , at the beginning of XII century, in Europe: Spain (Jativa) and Sicily (Palermo).

They improved techniques by introducing hammers and substituing raw materials (mulberry tree and other stuff) with linen abtained from egyptian mummies bandages. They perhaps used directly cotton, unknown to chinese people, and also a different gluering system, based on rice and corn birch instead of certain types of lychens used in China.

The above mentioned techniques, unfotunately, made the paper more liable to deteriorate. This was the reason why, at the beginning of XII century, in Padua, Sicily (Frederic II) and elsewhere this type of paper was forbidden in official acts meant to last for a long time.

The birth of the first paper factory in Fabriano (central Italy) was probably due to arabian craftsmen coming from Sicily. From Fabriano paper was soon spread over Italy and Europe, where every producer used to sign with his own watermark. Germany, Holland and Great Britain, due to difficulties and costs in rags collecting (even from abroad), were obliged to find alternative materials like wood, vines, nettle, moss, straw, leaves, sprouts, broom plant, etc.

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