Venetian marbled paper (carta marmorizzata) is made by swirling pigments into a large, shallow pan of water, then laying the paper gently and briefly on the surface of the water to transfer the pattern. Because the designs sometimes mimic the natural veining in stone or marble, the word “marbled” or “marbleized” came to be used.
Marbled paper is made across Asia and Europe, turned out with differing techniques depending on where it is made. In Venice, paper makers traditionally began with viscous oil-based paints well-known to Venetian artists since the late Middle Ages. These pigments, known as size or sizing, derived from various plants, including widely available aquatic ones. Today, many paper artists prefer synthetic acrylics and oil paints. Artists apply the paints into a wide, shallow tray filled with water. Sometimes a surfactant is used to help the colors float on the surface. Traditionally, artists used ox gall to serve this purpose, though today there are synthetic surfactants on the market.
The creative aspect of paper marbling comes next, when the artist applies the colors to the water using any number of techniques—like dropping or splattering paint using paintbrushes, horsehair or straw whisks, or other tools—to apply color to the surface of the water in a particular design or order. After the color has been dropped, the artist may use a variety of tools—including rakes, styluses, combs, brushes, or even a single hair—to create swirls, lines, and other design elements in the paint.
The techniques used to marbleize paper are closely related to the art of batik, laying pigments on fabrics. In fact, some paper artists are also active practitioners of fabric and fashion design.
Traditional Marbled Paper Designs
Much in the same way that Italians name pasta shapes after animals and household objects, some of the most popular marbleized paper designs are inspired by familiar images. Look for these common designs among the legatorie across town:
Chiocciola (snail) or conchiglia (shell)
With a beautiful sense of movement, the shell pattern is made by forming each coil with a stylus. This pattern was used widely in book end papers of the Renaissance period.
Marmo pettinato (combed marble)
This design is created by dragging a rake-like tool through the pigments, disturbing the horizontal lines and giving the impression of having been combed.
The appearance of peacock feathers is achieved with a special comb and rake. This is one of the most common patterns of paper marbling.