By Don Gawlik
Paper making first began in the Orient around the 700′s A.D. Five hundred years later, the sea empires of Amalfi, Genoa, Pisa, and Venice all traded extensively with the Middle East and the Orient. This network of trade gave rise to the need for documenting transactions. In the 13th century, Amalfi was the oldest Sea Republic – with bases all the way down to what is now Sicily – and became famous for its paper production.
The need for paper increased particularly in 1220 when King Ferdinand II came up with an epoch-making decision by imposing the use of paper for all public acts. The mills for producing the paper were located in the Valle dei Mulini (Valley of the Mills) and people came from throughout the Mediterranean to buy and record documents on Amalfi paper. The quality was so particular and the production so reliable that even the Vatican was said to have contracted with Amalfi to produce all its official paper. Mozart also received a supply of Amalfi paper in exchange for a concert in the home of a wealthy Neapolitan nobleman.
A hiking trail begins in the small town of Pontone along the Via delle Ferriere. Walking beyond a stream, you can see ruins of the Iron Works that once produced the metal parts needed by the paper mills. From there, a trail diverts upstream to a cascade. This is the waterway that many mills used to manufacture their paper.
The hills all around are the Lattari Mountains. They produce the water that flows into the Canneto River. In many places along the trail, you can see where man channeled the water into canals to help run the paper making machinery. The valley, ironically, helped the decline of the paper mills in later years because these roads, railways, and communication systems weren’t easily accessible, making the shipping in and out of raw materials difficult.
A document from the year 1700 states that this valley had eleven paper mills with a total of 83 pile troughs made of rock. Here, rags were crushed into fibers using large levers with hammers. Some of the mills were huge buildings that had rooms with open windows and large racks to dry the paper, while others were smaller.
In the beginning, old rags from Amalfi and other areas were used to produce the fibers for making paper. Rags were hard to come by. Ironically, when the Black Death killed millions of people in Europe, tons of clothing and rags became available – at just about the time the printing press was invented. Suddenly, more books were printed, people became better educated, and these better educated people scratched their heads, trying to figure out a substance that might provide even more paper making material. In the 1700′s a Frenchman studied the paper wasp and discovered that wood could be broken apart and made into paper – a process that is emulated today in paper manufacture.
The Paper Museum
At the end of the trail is the Paper Museum. The Italians started the first steps toward the process of “industrializing” paper making by mechanizing many jobs once done by hand. In later years, however, the Industrial Revolution struck this region hard. Many paper mills couldn’t modernize to keep up with competitors and they went out of business. In spite of the difficulties, some Amalfi paper makers continued to produce paper using their traditional methods; father passed the trade on to their sons and generations continued making paper in traditional ways.
Because of their geographic location, the mills were always subject to flooding during the rainy season. This flood water, if used in the mill, carried with it rubble that damaged equipment. In November 1954 a massive flood destroyed sixteen paper mills, leaving only three standing.
Because of the size of this valley, these mills have never been, and will never be, large or even middle-sized operations. They will always retain an artisan character. The museum displays some of the artisan techniques used throughout the centuries.
The Paper Making Shop
Continuing downhill from the museum, just on the right, you’ll find Arte e Carta di Rita Cavaliere at Via Casamare. The structure, housing the paper shop, has a mill stone near the entrance. Built in the 13 century, it retains its original stone basin for paper pulp and contains many paper making artifacts.
The Cavaliere family has been making paper from the 16th century onward, an art passed from one generation to the next. Visitors are invited to make a single sheet from wet pulp of one hundred percent pure cotton and peruse the shop with its fine quality paper. Available for sale are single sheets for watercolor or limited edition prints, textured paper embedded with dried flowers and plants, small booklets, blanks for businesscards and historical images of Amalfi. The shop is only about 100 meters from the museum as you head downhill toward the town center.