Following in the footsteps of more than 6000 school children and other untallied tourists who last year took the tour of this 13th Century-styled medieval paper making factory, it takes but a few steps inside the barely lit workshop to lose modern bearings. Tours are usually by appointment.
Rag piles are the first things you notice—sorted into qualities by cotton, hemp, or other materials. Their fate is to be torn into small pieces and mixed with a water and lime solution that breaks them down, until the ancient machines that in days gone by were riverside and powered by wheels turned by the water. The enormous machine moves like a primer on the mechanics of wheels, levers and pulleys. You then see its glop product spread on sheets in such a way that watermarks are created that set in as each hanging sheet dries. A glue made from animal waste is applied, the sheets stacked and pressed—and then there are the final steps of rubbing them with stones until the surface is ready for the calligraphers’ pens.
At once so primitive and yet intricate, this darkened room demonstration of medieval papermaking invites wonder on how on earth somebody came up with the sequence of ideas that transformed rags to pen-ready paper. Clunky and cumbersome, we are looking at early mechanical processes that perhaps inspired the likes of 15th Century genius Da Vinci to say, “Hey, there’s got to be a better way.” That said, these first machines are totally awesome, an oft overused word that is so fitting here.
This is not the sterile product we know to be paper today. Each sheet is somewhat unique—a tactile piece of wonder.
Bevagna Has Several Medieval Workshops for Different Crafts
This is but one workshop in Umbria’s medieval town of Bevagna. Other ateliers show the olden ways of making glass, textiles, silk, working iron and forges and making stamped coins. Every three years or so the apprentices in each of these workshops rotate to a new trade. Every June, volunteer re-enactors will join the ranks in great numbers to recreate the medieval times during a festival called “Il mercato delle gaite”
Francesco though, whose card identifies this place as a “lavorazione carta artigianale con tecniche medievali” says he will likely be the last papermaking master who knows the ins and outs of this ancient factory. When he goes, so does the craft. This thought will likely linger in your mind as you finger his parchment feeling business card and watch him roll away on his scooter.
Emerging from the dark clutter of the factory to take a sunset tour of Bevagna is highly recommended. You too may begin to notice anew how its walls and paths are similarly medieval miracles. How we have taken even the likes of a brick for granted! Rags, stones, animal skins, bricks, paper, walls--- you emerge from the papermaking factory newly aware of the materials around you.
For more information visit the Il mercato delle gaite website.