Over the course of the last few months, I have been an unofficial apprentice to Tunisian bookbinder and bookseller Mohamed Elbanani. Mohamed is the proprietor of Beit El-Bennani, a private library on Bab Menara boulevard in Tunis that houses an incredible collection of Tunisia-related books, manuscripts, and photographs. He has been gracious enough to offer his time and expertise over many different training sessions and these have truly enriched my understanding of bindings, binding materials, and book structures.
Most recently, we had a session on marbled papers and how they are produced. It occurred to me that this is a topic worth writing about here because I have occasionally run across marbled paper doublures or binding covers in Ibadi manuscripts dating (mostly) to the early modern period (16th-19th c.).
The essential materials for making marbled paper are a shallow bin in which to place the water, paper, and ink or pigment. Here we used ink from a printer’s shop because of the prohibitively expensive costs of pigment in Tunisia. In the pre-modern period, of course, the marbled papers would have been made from natural pigments produced from berries, flowers, leaves, insects, and so forth. This, along with the glue that was often made using flour or other tasty materials, helps explain why we often have a lot of trouble with so-called ‘bookworms’ (see earlier post).
The process begins by applying the ink/pigment to the top of the water. As you can see in the photograph, the ink floats on top of the water and, depending on consistency, either stays together or breaks apart. This process is repeated with however many colors you want. Colors can be blended or patterns can be made using a comb or other similar tools.
Next, the paper is placed face down onto the surface of the water, with only very light pressure applied to insure that the entire paper touches the surface. The paper will absorb the ink floating on the top of the water. After a few seconds, the paper is carefully slid off the water, revealing your new sheet of marbled paper. The sheet is then hung to dry, preferably in the shade.
While the practice of including marbled paper is relatively uncommon in North African Ibadi manuscripts, you can see how when you do run across one, it stands out! In a later post, I’ll be talking more about painted and printed-design papers in Ibadi manuscripts specifically.