The hand-made paper of Amalfi: Charta Bambagina

Amalfi Paper has a very ancient history. Along the great rivers of China, paper was invented in the 2nd century BC. In later centuries, the caravans moving west through Persia to the Mediterranean coast of Palestine, made known to the world this precious substitute for papyrus. However, that road wasn’t short at all, it took a thousand years before paper landed on Italian coasts, in Sicily, where the Amalfi people were present in the ports with the merchant fleet of the Maritime Republic.

Amalphitans smelled the business opportunity, thanks to their good relations with the Arabians they seized the secret to manufacture it, thus becoming the leading paper manufacturers in Europe. In 1231, Frederick II, King of Sicily, forbade by decree that the Amalphitans shouldn’t write official documents on paper because the old parchment didn’t undergo deterioration. But the paper production was already growing and spreading quickly: Amalfi’s paper mills produced a great product at prices significantly lower than that of old parchment. Cotton was the main material used to produce paper, thus the name Charta Bambagina, that is, made with cotton rags. In the Middle Ages, there was even a square in Amalfi dedicated to the commerce of this fabric: its name was Platea Bambacariorum.

Paper was widespread in that period especially due to the massive use by bishops and solicitors. Moreover, in 1545, the Council of Trent ordered that all the parishes should transcribe the acts of birth, death and several other sacraments, thus contributing to the diffusion of the new ‘media’. Meanwhile, the Paper of Amalfi, which had long lost the title of Maritime Republic, earning that of Paper Republic, became popular among many writers, both Italian and foreign, who went to Naples to publish their works with this special paper.

The decline of Amalfi, due to the attacks by the fleets who were becoming the new masters of the seas, as well as tsunamis and plagues, but also due to the problems in building larger factories that could compete with the new paper mills established in Italy, for example in Fabriano, and Europe, marked the end of the dominance of Amalfi in the industry.

However, the tenacity showed over the centuries by the Amalfi people, their attachment to life and the earth, the commercial spirit that has always pervaded – and which revived the town of Amalfi until it became the capital of the legendary and wonderful Amalfi Coast – has made it possible that even paper manufacturing hasn’t come to an end.

Nowadays, Amalfi boasts the presence of two prestigious Paper mills, which manufacture a product that is used for very special book editions and official documents, especially for wedding invitations and business cards. Cartiera Amatruda paper mill is a magical place, still located in a 15th century building in the ancient Valle dei Mulini (“Valley of the Mills,”) on River Canneto.

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