For centuries, artisans have elevated paper making - a material many take for granted - to an art form. Sara Pierdonà discovers the potential and poetry of paper, from tea ceremonies in Japan to marbling in Venice.




The ancient art of making paper - a material most of us now take for granted - originated in China and took more than a millennium to reach Europe. In some cultures, paper is, and always has been, a simple, functional material, in others, its creative potential is celebrated and its manufacture elevated to a true art form. 

Marbling in progress © Ofer Bookbindery


Sophie Richard, an art historian and Japanese art expert who travels to Japan at least twice a year, describes the importance of this humble material within Japanese culture, detailing the ways in which paper is still ritualised. Whenever traditional tea ceremonies are practised, for example, paper is used abundantly in different forms. This often includes lanterns, which give off a diffuse and evocative light, calligraphy, soberly hung on a wall, and large panels of rice paper, which conceal the surrounding space (ideally a roji garden) in lieu of thick stone walls.


Adachi Museum of Art, Japan © Sara Pierdonà  


Wrapping is also a very important feature of Japanese gift-giving ceremonies, where more elaborate and colorful papers are used. Among friends and acquaintances, gifts are exchanged on countless occasions, and as such, the gift does not need to be expensive or luxurious. It does, however, need to be well packaged. As a result, Japan is dotted with charming little shops dedicated to the art of paper, while the Japanese preserve historic paper to trade and reuse in origami.

It's a similar story in Europe, and particularly in Venice where anyone strolling the city will have noticed shops selling handmade wrapping paper, and notebooks covered in leather, gilded or damask wallpaper. It is the legacy of a city with an extraordinary cultural past. The owners of Antica Legatoria Ofer, a Venice store and workshop specialising in marvellous marbled papers, were producing papers in Padua, but noticed a significant change in fortune when they moved production to Venice too.

"It was only after we acquired the historical workshop in Venice that we achieved the excellence of our current products, which are sturdy and well-made, but above all beautiful." Their paper covers a wide variety of objects - pen holders, baskets, frames, pencils, and more - which are coveted by decorators and passing tourists, alike.


 Historic Venice © Cabana Magazine, N14


Marbling has various origins, but the technique used by Ofer is from the French school, learnt directly from Alberto Valese, a masterful artisan who sold his historic family foundry to devote himself to his true passion: paper. Like many Venetian craftsmen, Vallese always refused to reveal his trade secrets, but as an elderly man made one last outstanding gesture: he condensed all his knowledge into a handwritten book and, without saying a word, left it outside the door of those he had designated as his successors - the Antica Legatoria Ofer

Valese, in turn, had completed a comprehensive apprenticeship in another country with a proud history of paper making: Turkey. The Turkish practice of 'Ebru' (the word means 'cloudy', but colloquially translates as 'papers with a hypnotic effect') resembles western marbling, with unique touches. Although 'Ebru' is around 3000 years ago, the oldest specimens are more recent and kept in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul.

It was considered the paper of kings - used to draw up official documents as it immediately showed erasures or scrapings - or offered as a gift to foreign ambassadors and eminent personalities to arouse their admiration.

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