Monday, August 5, 2013

Valle dei Mulini

Valle dei Mulini - today
In the heyday of the Amalfi Maritime Republic, ships were heading out all over the Mediterranean, as far as Spain in the West and Jerusalem in the East. The Amalfi merchants needed to record their busy and profitable trading records, and parchment - made from sheep skin - was durable but heavy and expensive. On their travels they picked up, from the Arabs, the craft of manufacturing a much lighter paper - from cotton rags. Paper mills sprang up all through the valley behind Amalfi, the valley of the River Canneto. At peak production, there were fourteen mills operating in the valley, still known today as the Valle dei Mulini.

Valle dei Mulini' - yesterday (by Pietro Scoppetta) '(source)

Amatruda Paper Mill

There is one paper mill still operating commercially in Amalfi, the Amatruda Family's mill, and you can buy their handcrafted products in the village. If there is ever still a need for paper in this digital day and age, the rag paper of Amalfi is lovely stuff.

In the Valle dei Mulini there is also a small museum where you can see the old machinery and the paper-making process at work - the Museo della Carte. The museum is housed in an old paper mill once run by the Milano family.

The first step is to pound and squash your rags - for this a water-wheel powered by the rushing stream drives a crankshaft working big wooden pounders, made from the very hard local chestnut wood. A later innovation used metal in place of the wood.

Museo della Carte
('Paper Museum')
When you've produced a soupy concoction of watery rag mush, it can be scooped up on a sieve-like mesh frame, stamped with a watermark. When the water is drained off you are left with a wet layer which, when pressed and dried, becomes paper. Huge wooden presses were, in the old days, screwed down manually. When most of the liquid was pressed out, the sheets were air dried - in the air or wind, not sun.

The water-driven piles for crushing the rags
Scooping the rag mush onto a sieve-like frame
'I made paper!'
Old photo showing paper sheets air-drying.
Pressing the sheets.
Hand-made rag paper.
'And this is the water-mark.'
From the Museo della Carta website:
...the most interesting and most complete document on the existence of paper mills can be found in the uncial register of landed property. This document from 1700 indicates the activity of 11 paper mills in the centre with a total capacity of 83 piles (tins made of rock in which rags were crushed to produce paper). Some of them were huge buildings with skimming rooms with open windows and numerous fenditures used to drying the paper disposed on long lines. Others had a more moderate size. 
After several centuries - a good run - the local, hand-made paper mill industry in Amalfi died out. Difficulties of access and infrastructure in the narrow Valle dei Mulini contributed, as did a failure to update the industrial equipment, and  strong competition from other forms of manufacture. Also tough to deal with was the tendency of the river to flood. From the Museo website:
In spite of all difficulties, the papermakers of Amalfi continued their production with respect for the tradition. From generation to generation, from father to son meanwhile conserving the enterprise inherent in their character. The last and tremendous attack to the paper industry had been caused by a flood in november 1954. This flood had destroyed most paper mills. From the sixteen paper mills in the area only three remained. The Amalfi paper mills have never been and could have never been a huge or middle size industry but has from the beginning the artisan character which has remained till today.
Flood marker on the wall of an Amalfi paper mill, now a museum
(about ten feet above the floor).
Amalfi paper.
And the Valle dei Mulini today? A delightfully cool and fragrant retreat, with lemon trees covering the steep hillsides and the sound of the rushing river - which now disappears under the modern roadway for about the last kilometre of its length. But I can attest to the pleasantness of the Valle - I live there.

Valle dei Mulini & the Amatruda Mill (source)
(The view from the steps up to my place)

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