A Silent Evolution: Material Engagement and Knowledge behind the rise of Paper Technology across Italy and England (1590-1800)

Maria Alessandra Chessa

PhD Viva completed 2019-2020

Maria Alessandra Chessa

Maria Alessandra Chessa: A Silent Evolution: Material Engagement and Knowledge behind the rise of Paper Technology across Italy and England (1590-1800)


The research follows questions arising from a scientific illustration of asbestos, once part of the paper museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo (1646 ca.). As a physical object, capable of perceptually illustrating the filamentous nature of the mineral through a noticeable lint textured sheet, the illustration invites consideration of the scope of the fibre-made medium of paper. What brought paper to be so finely adopted by Cassiano as an expressive tool? What understanding did users have of the substance they used? To what extent did paper contribute to the development of the contents it carried? The aim of the thesis is to present a new, material-focused narrative of paper history in the contexts of Italy and England. In particular, the thesis explores the engagement of the learned and craftsmen with paper as a pervasive substance, in connection with a crucial phase of scientific and technological development between the end of the 16th and the 18th centuries.

The project moves away from the conventional ground of paper history and embraces a broader perspective offered by the theories and methodology of material culture. It derives evidence from and within objects, including adopting an ethnographic approach to study papermakers’ understanding of fibres, a topic largely inaccessible through archival sources.

The argument develops across three main instances of material engagement of the scholarly world and workshop practices with paper: using, looking, and making. It aims to demonstrate how each of these, with different modalities and contexts, mobilized thought, engendering the articulation of knowledge.

The first instance of the material engagement with paper focuses on its instrumental function and delineates a significant transition from the artisanal practice to that of the scientific community. By looking in particular at nature prints and herbaria as epistemic objects, the analysis traces a progression in the adoption of that versatile material technology for visualization, from the development of textual and figurative contents to the physical inclusion of actual specimens. The second instance, on the visual engagement, addresses the rising awareness of paper as a fibrous matter within the new scientific interest for fibres among the learned. From the earliest appearance of paper samples in the cabinets of curiosity to the observations of Bacon and the Linceans, the section reveals how such scrutiny into paper’s matter prompted questions regarding the theoretical framework of the artificial/natural dichotomy, stimulating the emerging understanding of organic physiology in early modern Europe. The third aspect investigates the technique of papermaking as an applied process of knowledge production. The material cognition of paper is explored through the different perspectives of naturalists, who accessed paper mills as an empirical means to investigate fibrous substances, and papermakers, depositaries of dynamic and long accrued insights into the fibres’ functional properties.

As a whole, the thesis demonstrates that, between the 17th and 18th centuries in Italy and England, engagement with paper did not simply end with the embrace of a technology, although complex. As a heuristic tool, with its substance of meshed fibres, paper became crucially ingrained in the same advancement of knowledge to which it was making a significant contribution as the principal material for books. The thesis thus outlines a vital involvement of the spheres of art and science with the material of paper: one that engendered knowledge in a mutual progression. While the new scientific observation into living matter and the nature of fibres helped driving the artisanal process of papermaking, the latter supported scholars in their journey of discovery. As a result, the consequence of such exchange shaped the development along with the material landscape of European civilization itself.

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