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Paper Making in Sicily
by Antonella Gallo

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Seal of Queen Constance.It appears that the first paper made in Europe was produced in Sicily toward the end of the tenth century, and a paper manuscript from Palermo survives from 1102. This sheet, a deed issued by Count Roger (then ruler of Sicily), is the oldest dated paper document in Europe. It was made from cotton fibres --cultivation of cotton having been introduced in Sicily by the Arabs.

The word paper comes to us from papyrus, which the ancient Egyptians used for writing. Papyrus grows in Sicily, and in Roger's time the Papireto, or "Papyrus," was the name of one of the streams that ran through the older part of Palermo. Except for its name, however, medieval paper had nothing to do with papyrus or even parchment; the latter is made from the skin of calves, sheep or goats (vellum is a similar product also used in manuscripts and illuminations).

Paper making, using linen and cotton (rather than wood pulp) as its raw material, was introduced in Sicily by the Arabs, perhaps before 900. The date is uncertain because, unfortunately, medieval Europe was not always the best place to preserve paper, always more delicate than parchment. It is largely for this reason that so few paper documents from Sicily's Norman and Swabian periods survive in legible condition. They were easily destroyed by humidity. Nevertheless, paper was appealing because it could be easily folded and transported, or concealed. Being thinner and lighter than parchment, and less expensive, it could be used when permanence was not essential, especially for secret messages which could easily be destroyed (burned or shredded) once read.

When Ibn Haukal visited Bal'harm (Palermo) in 972, paper making was among the crafts he mentioned seeing there. Were they recorded on parchment rather than paper, more documents might have survived from Sicily's Arab period. Frederick II, frustrated with paper's fragility, ordered that parchment be used for important official documents (the seal shown here is that of his mother, Constance), even if he sometimes issued paper ones himself.

Where was paper invented? In ancient China, of course, in the fourth century AD if not much, much earlier, and very old examples of paper (and printing) remain. The earliest paper was so heavy and coarse that it was used to make clothing. Following their capture of Samarkand, the Arabs encouraged paper makers there to continue the craft and teach it to others. Baghdad had a paper industry by 795, and the Arabs soon brought it to Sicily and Spain.

By the fifteenth century paper making had become a highly refined art, especially in Italy. Computers have changed communication technology but it is difficult to imagine life without paper.

About the Author: Antonella Gallo, who teaches art in Rome, has written numerous articles on arts and artists for Best of Sicily.

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© 2007 Antonella Gallo