Creating Handmade Italian Marbled Paper in Florence, Italy

The art of paper marbling is mesmerizing. An artisan applies droplets of paint to a small pool of water. The colors appear to gracefully dance upon the surface of the water, but these individual splotches of paint respect the neighboring colors’ boundaries. As the artisan adds more and more colors, this dance continues. Finally, when the artisan feels the effect is just right, she gently places a piece of paper on the surface of the water, and voilà, the art is transformed from an ephemeral state to one that’s everlasting.

I first held a piece of marbled paper in my hands when I was a child. My mother liked stationery decorated with this effect, and so too, did some family and friends who mailed us letters. I’m not sure when precisely my love of stationery and collectible paper items was born. However, I remember trying to hand-decorate stationery when I was a child. (The attempts were admirable, but lacking in sophistication!)

As I grew older, I also collected lacy vintage valentines, trade cards (stylish advertisements), and post cards from the 19th and 20th centuries. Decades ago and even now, I still love sending and receiving hand-written notes. Of course, since almost everything is now digital, paper correspondence is more and more of a rarity. Still, I try to strike a happy medium.

With that said, it comes as no surprise that during our recent trip to Florence — a city long known for its handmade marbled paper — I was eager to learn more about this elegant and historic technique.

One sun-drenched afternoon, Shawn and I visited Giulio Giannini & Figlio, Florence’s oldest marbled-paper maker. There, we met Maria Giannini, the 6th-generation artisan who runs this iconic Florentine business.

Over the course of a few hours, Maria shared the story of her business and explained how the items in her boutique were crafted. Later, she took us to the workshop in the back of the boutique where she demonstrated how to marble paper. The result? I was spellbound and utterly determined to learn more about marbling. Someday, I also hope to get my own materials and give this classic technique a whirl.

What follows is Maria’s story, a brief history of paper marbling, and a peek at how marbled paper is handmade in Florence.

The History of Paper Marbling

Paper marbling techniques have origins that go back centuries, perhaps even more than one thousand years. Historians aren’t sure where the earliest versions of the art originated, nor how much exchanging of ideas took place.

In Japan, a paper decorating technique called Suminagashi (墨流し) — literally “floating ink” — has likely existed since at least the 10th century. Some scholars think that an art similar to marbling was also practiced in China in the 14th century and perhaps even earlier.

As time went on, artists throughout Central Asia and Persia practiced similar techniques, too. In Turkey, the craft came to be known as Ebru, whereas in Persia it was called Abri.

By the 16th century, the technique had also made its way to Europe, in particular Italy, where it’s called Marmorizzazione, and France where it’s known as Papier marbré.

Over time, it become popular to use marbled paper as bookcovers and endpapers. The marbleized papers were even sought after to line bookshelves and furniture drawers. Beyond its aesthetic appeal, marbled paper also had a more practical application since it helped guard against forgeries.

A French encyclopedia entry, published in 1767, shows the marbled paper process and equipment. Taken from l’Encyclopedie of Diderot et d’Alembert. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Left image: Encyclopedie volume 4-275. Right image: Encyclopedie volume 4-276.
The Duomo, Florence’s awe-inspiring cathedral, was completed in 1434.
The Duomo (left) and the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio (right).
There’s so much magnificent artwork in Florence to inspire today’s artisans and craftspeople! This is a ceiling in the Uffizi.
Giulio Giannini e Figlio is just across the street from the Palazzo Pitti. This Renaissance palace was once home to the Medici family, whose wealth from wool and banking allowed them to become immensely powerful. The Medici were also well-known patrons of the arts.

Watch a Video of This Experience

Visiting Giulio Giannini & Figlio

Since 1856, the Giannini family has been crafting paper treasures for a wide audience, including Florence residents, popes and queens, and generations of tourists.

In English, the shop’s Italian name, Giulio Giannini & Figlio, translates to “Giulio Giannini & Son” — a nod to one of the shop’s earlier owners, Giulio, Sr., and his son, Guido, Sr. However, 165 years after its founding, the shop — Florence’s oldest marbled-paper maker — has a daughter, and not a son, at its helm.

The current owner, Maria Giannini, is a sixth-generation master artist, who like her Giannini ancestors before her, has kept this historic workshop in Florence’s Oltrano district thriving.

Maria is a classic example of an autodidact. Though she descends from a long line of Florentine bookbinders and hand-decorated paper masters, much of what she’s learned about the business, she’s taught herself.

When she was 13, Maria started working inside the family shop during the summertime “for fun” and to earn a bit of money. She says that some of her elders at the shop were too busy to teach her. As a result, she did everything she could to soak up knowledge from a variety of sources.

“I experimented. I listened and grabbed from here and there,” she says, as she explained how she learned to perfect various paper-decorating techniques.

“I even learned English by listening to the young Czech women who [sometimes] worked in the shop,” Maria says. With a smile, she adds that she once developed a bit of a Czech accent as a result.

Gesturing towards a decorative desk organizer from about 1902, Maria mentioned that her great-grandmother was a talented artist herself.

“My great-grandmother made this,” Maria said while holding the weathered organizer adorned with a fleur-de-lys symbol.

“However, due to customs of the time, she was not allowed to work in the front of the shop, nor was she allowed to sign any works that she decorated,” Maria adds.

I find it fitting that Maria’s great-grandmother’s name was also Maria. I wonder what the elder Maria would think of the fact that her great-granddaughter is now the owner of the shop.

In the 19th century, Giulio Giannini & Figlio became well known for its bookbinding services, something Maria’s uncle, Guido, Jr., still does today. In particular, the workshop specializes in limited editions of books, and binding restoration for collectors and libraries. They’ve also collaborated with artists, writers, and publishing companies to design the entire aesthetic of books — choosing everything from paper type to the look of the book’s cover.

Aside from the bookbinding, Maria essentially runs all aspects of the business. She is also a master paper marbler, who makes sophisticated decorated paper for a variety of products. Like her ancestors before her, Maria’s decorated paper has graced leather books, greeting cards, and stationery.

More recently, she’s innovated by creating marbled designs to adorn scarves, face masks, and phone covers. (To get a feel for the shop’s product line, have a peek at the Giannini catalog.) Maria has also collaborated with other businesses such as S’well (to design reusable water bottles with a marbled design), and a California winery (to craft unique wine labels that reflect the wine’s special characteristics).

Beyond her hand-made marbled paper creations, Maria also dedicates time to safeguarding relics from the past.

Using stamps from the shop’s vast and historic collection, Maria has designed a variety of products. They include monogrammed jewelry as well as paper that’s adorned with traditional Italian folk designs. For several years, she’s been working on a digital archive of the shop’s 1,000 or so bronze stamps. Maria also hopes to bring the shop’s designs to other markets.

“This is my moment. I feel a responsibility to preserve, to change, to go further. I’m very conscious of that. I have lots of ideas,” she said.

“This is my moment. I feel a responsibility to preserve, to change, to go further. I’m very conscious of that. I have lots of ideas.”

– Maria Giannini
Above the boutique’s door it says: bottega d’arte dal 1856 (art workshop since 1856). From 1886 until the 1950s, Giannini family members lived in this building.
A peek inside Giulio Giannini e Figlio’s display window. The delightful pink and violet marbled paper was hand decorated with a peacock pattern.
Left: Maria Giannini, the shop’s sixth-generation master artist / owner, opens the boutique. Right: Maria poses next to a black-and-white photograph of the shop’s earlier generations. The vintage photo was taken in 1921.
Maria holds an antique desk organizer that was decorated by her great-grandmother. She explained that even though her great-grandmother showed artistic talent, customs dictated that she couldn’t work in the front of the shop, nor sign the products she decorated. I find it fitting that Maria’s great-grandmother’s name was also Maria. I wonder what the elder Maria would think of the fact that her great-granddaughter is now the owner of the shop.
Left: A photograph taken around 1904 showing the workshop hangs above a display of greeting cards. The shop’s advertisements back then were written in English, attesting to the popularity of the goods with English visitors. Maria says that the Florentines were influenced by English style and they, in turn, were influenced by the Florentine style. Right: This decorative paper features woodblock print decorations that were inspired by traditional motifs from several Italian regions.
Paper decorated with three tulips made with the Ebru technique.
Left: An Ebru design. Right: Paper decorated with the comb pattern.
Pretty pencils.
Vintage greeting cards and place cards decorated in the Florentine style.
Leather books adorned marbled edges and the fleur-de-lis symbol (Italian: giglio). It is the symbol of the city of Florence.
The workshop’s historic collection of stamps numbers around 1,500; incredibly, some date back to the 14th century. Today, the stamps are often used with gold leaf to decorate special leather-bound books. The stamps’ designs range from letters of the alphabet to intricate flourishes. Over the years , Giulio Giannini & Figlio has crafted special books for a variety of businesses, hotels, and shops — even guestbooks for owners of sailboats, villas, and castles.
The workshop has long been known for its fine artistic bookbinding. Maria’s uncle, Guido, Jr. (a 5th-generation artist) is the in-house specialist today. Maria explained that there are many different types of binding. The Florentine style is different from the French, for example, and each style may use a different number of strings and a different number of ties. This workshop does Florentine bookbinding, Japanese bookbinding, etc. All of the gold decorations that you see here were done by hand, one stamp at a time. The decoration alone can take two days to complete.
Maria shows a handcrafted book with marbled endpapers.

How Handmade Marbled Paper is Crafted, Step by Step:

Making marbled paper is both an art and a science.

On one hand, you have the artistic elements — the colors and patterns. Some patterns have become well-known among artists in different parts of the world. They have whimsical names like peacock, bouquet, snail (or French curl), flame, feather, double comb, stone, tiger, and more. Master artisans, as well as hobbyists worldwide, have also innovated and created their own patterns. Even though this is a centuries-old craft, there are still infinite opportunities to innovate!

Scientifically speaking, there’s chemistry involved, too. Fluctuating temperatures and humidity levels can impact how the paint droplets interact with the liquid bath on which the paint floats (called “size”). Putting too much paint into the size might result in paint sinking to the bottom of the tray. And if you don’t properly prepare the paper in advance, a carefully crafted design might briefly imprint onto the paper, only to slide off it in a heartbreaking fashion.

This is a basic peek at the materials and steps involved to marble paper, however, there are variations, of course.

Materials:

  • tray
  • size – a gelatinous liquid made with water and powdered carrageenan (carrageenan is a type of seaweed)
  • ox gall – a surfactant that is sometimes used to help the paint float on the surface
  • alum
  • sponge
  • pigments mixed with distilled water
  • paint containers
  • cotton paper
  • paintbrushes / spatter brushes
  • stylus
  • combs of varying sizes (fine-toothed to wide-spaced width)
  • rake tool
  • scraper stick

Process:

  1. Preparation of the size: The artisan prepares the liquid on which the paint will float. This is usually done one day in advance by mixing the carrageenan powder and water, then bringing them to a boil. Once the liquid has cooled, the artisan pours it through a sieve and puts it into a jug to set overnight.
  2. Filling the tray with size: Next, the artisan pours the size into a tray.
  3. Testing the colors to ensure the consistency is right: Before starting to create a design, the artisan tests the colors to ensure they spread out and float properly. At this stage, a few drops of ox gall might be added to the colors.
  4. Making the pattern: Using paintbrushes or spatter brushes, the artisan thoughtfully drops a series of colors onto the size. The paint will appear to “dance” on the water. The artisan might also use tools such as combs, rakes, a stylus, and even her breath to manipulate the colors to get the desired effect.
  5. Transferring the design to paper: The artisan carefully places a sheet of paper (that’s been pre-treated with an alum solution) onto the surface of the water. She allows the paper to sit there for a few seconds to absorb the colors before removing the paper.
  6. Setting the paper aside to dry: Once the paper has been removed from the water, it is set on a drying rack or hung up to dry for several hours.
  7. Skimming the size: If the artisan wants to decorate additional sheets of paper, she skims off any remaining paint that’s floating on the size to prepare it for the next round. Skimming can be done with a piece of newspaper or with a special skimming tool.
Jars filled with paint and brushes sit next to a rectangular-shaped tray filled with “size.” The artisan is able to reuse this gelatinous liquid from one sheet of paper to the next so long as she skims off any left-over paint. The size can go bad quickly in the heat, so Maria usually takes a break during the months with the hottest weather.
Left: A cup of brushes. Right: Maria stirs a jar of blue paint and applies paint to the brush.
Maria applies the first splotches of paint.
The paint “floats” on the surface of the water.
As more and more colors are added, they don’t blend together. However, the artisan must be careful not to add too much paint to the basin at once, as this could cause the paint to sink to the bottom.
Maria adds some pumpkin-colored paint.
White paint.
Working left to right, Maria methodically runs a stylus through the basin.
Using a tool called a comb, Maria combs the paint.
Maria is satisfied with the design, so she gets a sheet of paper ready to transfer the paint.
Next, Maria carefully places a sheet of paper on the surface of the liquid and allows it to sit there for a few seconds so the paint will transfer.
Left: Maria reveals the marbled paper. It’s incredible how the paint has transferred from the basin to the paper, isn’t it? Right: The sheet of paper is then set on a rack for drying.
In order to “create a clean canvas,” Maria skims off any leftover paint from the bath’s surface. This will allow her to reuse the size and create more designs.
Maria demonstrates another design — one that will require different colors and techniques.
Maria blows on the paint to tweak the design.
Using a stylus, Maria makes more flourishes.
Left: After placing the paper on top of the size’s surface, Maria carefully removes the paper. Right: All the pigments have successfully transferred to the paper.

Further Resources:

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

How to Visit Giulio Giannini & Figlio:

Giulio Giannini & Figlio is located in Florence’s Oltrano neighborhood, just across the street from the Palazzo Pitti (Pitti Palace). On foot, the shop is a few minutes away from the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s landmark bridge.

Maria offers a variety of experiences, including marbled paper demonstrations, marbled paper classes, and book-making workshops. To schedule one of these experiences, contact Maria in advance.

Accommodation in Florence:

Shawn and I spent one month in Florence and stayed in Giotto, an Airbnb apartment. It was located in the San Frediano neighborhood, about a 20-minute walk from the Uffizi Gallery and the Santa Maria Novella Train Station.

The apartment had a living room/kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom and it offered a lovely mix of old and new. The interior was recently renovated and had a brand-new washing machine, dishwasher, refrigerator, and two air conditioners. Like most Italian apartments, the Giotto also had an espresso maker, in this case, a Bialetti Venus moka. We loved the sleek design and functionality so much that we later bought one.

Since we had a fair amount of luggage with us, we also liked that the apartment had lots of storage space. What’s more, the ceilings above our bedroom and the kitchen were a work of art themselves! They were painted in the early-20th century. After a long day of sightseeing in the sweltering June and July heat, we loved coming “home,” lying in bed, and looking at the scenes of birds and nature above our bedroom.

The apartment overlooked a courtyard that doubled as a small parking lot for the other residents. Since we weren’t facing the street (with all the scooters whizzing by), the apartment was blissfully quiet. We also enjoyed chatting with the apartment’s thoughtful and helpful owners, Paola and Roberto.

Looking for more Italy trip-planning inspiration?

From meeting a truffle hunter in Northern Italy to taking a cooking class in the delightful city of Modena, see all of my posts from Italy.

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Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

13 thoughts on “Creating Handmade Italian Marbled Paper in Florence, Italy

    1. Hi Darlene, I was also fascinated — not only by the history of marbled paper, but also by the science behind this art. Florence is filled with many workshops with artisans making so many incredible handmade products. I look forward to returning someday and watching more dedicated artisans at work.

      How is your summer going?

  1. Hi Tricia and Shawn
    Greetings from Australia. For many years I have enjoyed reading your travel stories. My wife and I have planned many trips using your helpful posts. In particular we travelled to Croatia as a result of your encouragement. Over 50 years ago as a teacher I taught children the simple art of marbling. It was a very primitive method but ignited great interest by my students. Your very detailed report has brought back wonderful memories and has inspired me to plan another trip to Italy in order to visit Maria and her shop in Florence. Thank you for your travel stories and sharing so many worthwhile experiences which most people never read in travel brochures. When might you travel to Australia? A whole different range of experiences await you. With gratitude and best wishes. Chris Ehler

    1. Hi Chris,

      How nice it was to receive your thoughtful comment! I’m absolutely thrilled to hear that some of my posts have proven useful to you and your wife as you did trip research. I’m curious about the places in Croatia you two visited and what some of your favorite experiences were? :)

      How wonderful that you introduced your students to the art of marbling. Perhaps you inspired one of them to pursue the art as a hobby or livelihood. When I was researching this article, I found several tutorials for shaving cream paper marbling. Since shaving cream is more readily available than the authentic materials, I can see why this is a popular approach for children.

      When you visit Florence, I do hope you’ll have a chance to stop by Maria’s historic and charming shop. I could spend a lifetime in Italy observing artisans at work! I’m not sure if you happened to see my post about Florentine marquetry, which I published earlier this year. If you go to Florence, you might enjoy visiting the Scarpelli family workshop and seeing their stone marquetry masterpieces, too.

      As for Australia, it is definitely on our wish list! Shawn and I spent a few months in Southeast Asia in 2011-2012 and yearned to visit Australia then. However, there’s so much ground to cover that we felt it would be better to dedicate an entire trip to exploring Australia someday. In what part of the country do you live? Perhaps our paths will cross somewhere in the world someday! As a former teacher myself, I’d love to hear some of your stories from the classroom.

      Wishing you a lovely weekend, and thank you again for taking the time to share your kind words.

    1. Hi Anna, so nice to hear from you again! Have you made it back to Croatia since we were last in contact? I’ve seen a few artisans at work there (stonemasons and silver filigree artists), but there are more workshops I’d love to visit, to include the lace makers on the island of Hvar.

      I’m glad you enjoyed this glimpse at Italian paper marbling, thank you for your kind words! :)

      1. Hi Tricia, sadly no Croatia yet! Australia only just opened up earlier this year and I wanted to wait a bit to see how things go before booking anywhere. I hope for next year if things align. My grandparents died within 6 months of each other just before covid hit so I dont have any real need to go visit. They were the sole reason for going so often, but of course there are still other friends and family to see there. BTW If you want to see lacemaking Pag Island is the place! Pag is renowned for its lace work! X

      2. I’m sorry to hear about your grandparents, Anna, and I hope things will go work out for a trip next year. Also, I can understand why you’re waiting to see how thing play out before booking anything — especially a long, international trip. We actually traveled to Florence last summer from Croatia. It’s a long story, but since we weren’t eligible to get our vaccines in Croatia, Italy was the closest place to go.

        As for Croatian lace, that’s right, I forgot about Pag also being celebrated for its lace! We’ve wanted to visit Pag for a while but just haven’t made it. Pag’s millennium-old olive trees and special cheese are also a draw. It sounds like we’ll have to do a bit of island-hopping in search of Croatian artisans the next time we visit.

      3. Thanks for your kind words Tricia. I do hope to see you post about Pag one day, it really is unlike any other Croatian island!

  2. These are incredibly beautiful! It’s amazing to think that under the right hands, different colors (and a little science) can end up in such marvelous creations. I love how your blog posts introduce us to art techniques like this, Tricia.

    1. Hi Bama,

      I’m glad that you enjoyed this introduction to paper marbling. Watching artisans at work is something I love to do when we travel, and then it’s fun coming home and learning more about a given craft. When we get more settled in one place, I can’t wait to buy a paper marbling kit and see what happens. :)

      Wishing you a wonderful weekend!

    1. Hi Carol, I love paper goods, so I had to restrain myself here. :) I ended up buying a package of Florentine stationery, as well as a cloth shopping bag with Florence’s symbol on it.

      Do you usually bring home a certain category of souvenir when you travel? I used to get a cook book or a charm for a charm bracelet, but lately I’ve been buying more consumable souvenirs — spices, sea salt, etc.

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