Thursday 1 May 2014

Marbling in Florence by Mary Hoffman

This could so easily degenerate into a post about writers and stationery lust. How many of us own something like the above - a delicious notebook bound in "Carta Marmorizzata," marbled paper, just waiting for the "right" or at least "good enough" ideas for a perfect book?

Marbled paper is a rather generic term: there are examples that look far more like actual marble but it's the "peacock feather" design, as above, that always attracts me.

If you'd asked me, I would have said that the technique of marbling paper had been born in Florence, or at least Tuscany. But it turns out to have come from the country we now call Turkey and also Persia and India. And this year for the first time I watched some being made.

I was in Florence in April, teaching on Julie Foster Hedlund's Writer's Renaissance programme, which I've written about elsewhere. Julie had arranged to visit a shop called Alberto Cozzi, now run by Riccardo Luci, who was going to make some marbled paper on a Saturday afternoon. She kindly invited me to join her and we then watched a demonstration of a technique that goes back some four hundred years. Riccardo is the fourth generation in his family to carry it out and he does it expertly.

These images of marblers and their equipment date from 18th century France, by which time the art had been well established for over a hundred years. And nothing much has changed in the centuries since.

You start with a shallow tray filled with liquid; these days it is usually a size made from algae or some other form of seaweed - enough to make it a viscous carrier for the paint. Using a paintbrush to flick it, our marbler Riccardo dotted many colours on to the size.

He had a vast range of colours laid out and prepared on the bench to his right. How he chooses what to use and in what order comes from long experience and - who knows? - perhaps something in his DNA.

At this stage, I couldn't tell how this seemingly random collection of blobs could turn into the exquisite marbled paper we are familiar with. Riccardo added more sparingly smaller blobs of gold and silver.

Only when he was satisfied with the arrangement of colours did he drag first a stylus and then a comb through them and I could see some sort of pattern emerge. But there was another pass to come. I don't know what the technical term is but Julie and I decided that the side-to-side motion with the comb must be "wiggling."

And there they were! The characteristic peacock feathering of the classic Florentine marbled paper.

Now he was ready for the paper.

It takes a very steady hand and a cool head to do this bit!

And here is the end result. All shiny and wet. It will need to be pegged on a line to dry but here it is lying on a board.

You can see all the different colours and possibly even pick out the odd splashes of silver and gold.

It takes hours for the paper to dry and then it is stored flat in some narrow wooden shelves. I went back the next day to collect this piece, which had been made specially for Julie, and to buy a piece for myself. Each one is a unique work of art.

All the colours have to be swept out of the tray with another device to clean the size before another set can be applied. One mixture of size will produce up to twenty-five sheets of marbled paper.

The whole experience got me thinking about the traditional arts and crafts that have been handed down through the generations. I've recently been making things for my new granddaughter by knitting and crochet, both of which I must have learned how to do from my mother, though I have no recollections of any formal lessons. Knitting has a very long history, dating back to the first millennium in Egypt but crochet is a bit of a upstart, found only in the 19th century in Europe.

Some of the same skills are involved: choosing colours, using traditional designs and patterns.

How every stitch - as with every blob of paint above - carries forward a little bit of history!

Do you have a story about traditional crafts handed down through the generations?

And here is a video of Riccardo doing the marbling, made by Julie Foster Hedlund.


Carol Drinkwater said...

Mary, when I began to read your post I thought immediately of Constantinople. Your mention of the historical roots of marbling paper reminds me of the history of manufacturing glass. Venice is world famous for its glassmaking, particularly the island of Murano but twice through history Venice was furnished with glassmakers from Constantinople, now Istanbul in Turkey. The first time was in 1204 when the city was sacked by the Fourth Crusade and later, more importantly for Italian glassmaking, I think, when the Ottomans took Constantinople.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Oh, that takes me back to a blissful afternoon when I was about eight or nine, and I was allowed to go with my big brother to Mr Cockerell's house in the village. (This was Sandy Cockerell, bookbinder and marbler, who was brought in to save the books in Venice when it was flooded in the '60s). I think there was something from seaweed put into the water to make the oil colours float. I had a go at dropping in colours and combing them. Magical! And it even sort-of worked with ordinary poster paints when we got home!

Unknown said...

This takes me back to childhood, too. To a visit to The Ideal Homes Exhibition with my parents, where someone was demonstrating a paper marbling kit. I don't know how I managed to persuade them but, amazingly, we bought one! The colours were much more drab - green, fawn and pink mainly - but the first stages above look surprisingly familiar. My results were more splotched and spotty than combed and feathered, but then I didn't have years of skill and generations of practitioners behind me. I've always loved marbled papers and the rich colours of Florence are so beautiful. Lucky you to have your own handmade sheet of paper.

Imogen said...

How very beautiful! I'm extremely jealous.

Katherine Langrish said...

What an utterly gorgeous thing to watch, Mary! Thankyou!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

No wonder marbled paper costs so much... even down at my local 'Green and Stone' in the Kings Road, never mind Florence. But your blanket had me feeling very guilty and heartsore. I once gave a blanket away my mother had done for my son... with a dog I had bred and was to sent away to a buyer far away by train... I felt the puppy needed some smell of our home on the journey. I hope my mother forgives me! What was I thinking... all that hard work!

michelle lovric said...

Gorgeous, Mary. Alberto Valese in Venice still makes this kind of paper in his studio near San Francesco della Vigna. You can do courses with him. He went to Turkey to research some marbling methods that include the creation of images like tulips and trees and fishes within the marbling. He sells them in his little shop in Santo Stefano.

Alana White said...

Truly fascinating. Thanks!

Becca McCallum said...

Wonderful post...going to squirrel this one away for later on. I work with books, and some of them are fairly badly sun-damaged - the spines look faded and pale...until you pull them out and see all the beautiful colours.