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Fabriano Paper in Library of Congress Collections

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This post was jointly written by Nathan Dorn and Sylvia Albro.

Bartolus de Saxoferrato, Super prima parte digesti novi, 1478. Printed in Venice by Nicolaus Jenson.
Bartolus de Saxoferrato, Super prima parte digesti novi, 1478. Printed in Venice by Nicolaus Jenson.

In this post, we catch up with Library of Congress employee Sylvia Albro, who is a senior paper conservator in the Library’s Conservation Division.  Last fall, Sylvia published a book that presents research she has been conducting on books and manuscripts in various parts of the Library of Congress–among them, the Law Library’s rare books collection. Sylvia’s book, Fabriano: City of Medieval and Renaissance Papermaking, offers an overview in English of the tremendous amount of scholarship in Italian devoted to the history of paper in Fabriano, Italy, as well as Sylvia’s own original research on the subject.  It contains a catalogue of books, prints, maps, and manuscripts found in Library of Congress collections that were made with Fabriano paper. The book was jointly published by Oak Knoll Press and the Library of Congress.

Fabriano is a small Italian city in the region of Marche that is renowned for the role it played in the introduction of paper to European civilization.  Although it was not Europe’s first center of paper production, Fabriano became the most successful because the area introduced new technology to mass-produce paper at a time when literacy was rapidly growing in the Mediterranean basin.  According to Sylvia, three important innovations contributed to this success: 1) the introduction of a waterwheel powered system of multiple-head wooden stampers used to pound the rags into a suitable pulp; 2) the invention of a fixed-wire mould with a watermark design to identify the workshop in which the paper was made; and 3) the use of animal gelatin as a sizing agent to prepare the paper surface for the European quill pen and iron gall ink writing material then in use.  The natural geographic setting of the city of Fabriano was also a factor in its success; the spring water from the Apennine mountains that powered the waterwheels of the papermaking workshops or “gualchiere” was very pure, with a high concentration of calcium and magnesium, mineral components that help keep the paper white in color over time; and very little iron or copper, metals which contribute to paper degradation. The result of these methods is that books printed on Fabriano paper are very long-lasting and beautiful. A great number of them remain in mint condition more than five hundred years after they were created.

beta radiograph of a watermark in the shape of a pair of scissors; wm size: 77 x 37 mm
Beta radiograph of a watermark in the shape of a pair of scissors; wm size: 77 x 37 mm. [Courtesy of Sylvia Albro]
Sylvia first took an interest in the history of Fabriano paper production after visiting the city more than twenty years ago. She was fascinated by the degree to which industrial history remains part of Fabriano’s identity.  Paper has been made in this location for more than 750 years continuously.  Antique machinery, equipment and paper samples are preserved there in museums, libraries, and archives; some remain in the collection of the still-operating paper mill.  Today, most of the paper in Fabriano is made by machine and a primary product is the paper support made for the Euro.  How the original craft of papermaking came to Fabriano is not exactly known; paper made from plant fiber was first made in China over two thousand years ago. The craft practice spread along the silk route to the Middle-East, to North Africa, and eventually to Europe starting in Spain, using various raw materials including worn out rags of linen, cotton and hemp fabric instead of plant fiber directly.  The Library of Congress along with many other libraries in the world, have in their collections important rare materials, including manuscripts and printed law books that were made with Fabriano paper dating from the late medieval and Renaissance periods, many of which have survived in very good condition to present times.

Sylvia undertook research for the book in two stages. First as a Library of Congress Kluge Staff Fellow in 2001, she  traveled to Fabriano to examine manuscript and paper samples in historical archives and various collections in the area. Then, looking at the two most important collections of samples of Fabriano paper from the hand-press era — the collections of Aurelio Zonghi and Augusto Zonghi, whose samples were taken only from dated manuscripts from 1267-1600AD known to be produced in the area — she identified a number of indicia that, where present in paper, point to its production in Fabriano.  “I recorded watermarks and learned to recognize the identifying properties of the paper sheets made in this area.” She then returned to Washington to examine Library of Congress collection items from the same period, especially manuscripts, maps, prints, drawings and printed books and found many exact matches of paper type and watermarks.

Beta radiograph of a pair of scissors watermark; p. 130. wm size: 77 x 37 mm. [Courtesy of Sylvia Albro]
Beta radiograph of a watermark in the shape of a prelates hat; wm size: 77 x 37 mm. [Courtesy of Sylvia Albro]
Among the items from the Law Library’s rare books collection that Sylvia examined in the course of her research were the following three:

  1. Decisiones rotae romanae, or Decisiones novae, antiquae et antiquores, which was printed in Rome in 1475 by the German printer George Lauer de Herbipoli. It contains 394 leaves of  large (reale) size Fabriano paper with watermarks of a hunting horn and an anvil (the latter being the insignia of Fabriano).
  2. Bartolo di Sassoferrato’s Super Prima Parte Digesti Novi printed in Venice in 1478 by the French printer Nicholas Jenson on Fabriano paper with watermarks of a crossbow, a ladder, scissors, crossed arrows, an encircled anchor and a prelate’s hat.
  3. Consilium in casu privilegiorum Recanatensium (Privileges Granted to the Town of Recanati), an iron gall ink manuscript in the Law Library written by the jurist Baldo degli Ubaldi, is executed on a laid paper with a flower watermark that closely matches papers and watermarks produced in the Fabriano area in the second half of the 14th century.


Digital image of a watermark in the shape of a bird-man from the one blank page inserted between books 1 and 2 of the bound volume. Wm size: 74 x 45mm. [Courtesy of Sylvia Albro]
Watermark in the shape of a bird-man from the one blank page inserted between books 1 and 2 of the bound volume, wm size: 74 x 45mm. [Courtesy of Sylvia Albro]

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