In a March 2017 presentation at the Library of Congress that was fortunate to be videotaped, Sylvia Rodgers Albro, a senior conservator of rare materials on paper at the Library of Congress, presents several instances of Arabic influence in the early papermaking industry of the city of Fabriano, Italy. Not only were early watermarks derived from Arabic numerals and characters (the infinity symbol that tarot readers are so familiar with is of Arabic origin), but Arabic paper-making techniques were integrated alongside more contemporary methods—sometimes the two types of paper being combined in the same book.
What does this mean for our historical tarot research? It means that since printed cards were one of the early uses of the new paper-making industry, and that Arabic paper-making methods were used and integrated into Italian paper production, that the high possibility exists for Arabic influence to have been impressed in the printing and decoration of those paper products as well. This gives some bolster to the Arabic/Mamluk-influence model of determining where the tarot came from or from what it was inspired.
What’s more, Albro notes that several of the same people who worked in the seasonal labor of papermaking in the Fabriano papermills also worked in the illustrative artistic industry associated with bound and finished products. This would seem to support the notion that if workers were influenced by Arabic paper production techniques, that Arabic design and art would similarly end-up influencing Italian design and artistry—especially if the same workers/artisans were handling both tasks.
According to Albro, more than eighty presses were in production in Italy in the late 1400s. Fabriano paper was prized because the water that fed the mills was of a high calcium content and low metallic contend. This produced a brilliant white paper that can still be witnessed to this day. Albro provides slide illustrations of some of the earliest examples of Fabriano books which were printed in Hebrew and—particularly—in Arabic.
Fabriano: City of Medieval and Renaissance Papermaking
Lecture by Sylvia Albro
Given at the Library of Congress on March 7, 2017
Albro’s book on the subject of Fabriano paper can be found here.
You can read a previous blog post on Early Renaissance papermaking in Europe here.