HOW long will it be before our descendants stop writing letters?
We all know that video killed the radio star. And now the Internet is killing off the time-honoured art of letter-writing. Those sheets of paper on which Great Aunt Daisy wrote gentle, moving words to her sweetheart a century ago will soon only be seen in museums. Future generations will gaze in wonderment at superbly-crafted sentences in copper-plate handwriting made with a pen and ink on ornate single sheets of writing paper. And they will wish they could reproduce such poignant memories themselves. But all they will know how to do is to use an ever-changing form of digital shorthand on mobile phones and personal computers.
That’s why this journalist has gone to the trouble of having his mother’s first letter to her future husband framed to protect it. It was written in 1928 when she was 15 and Dad but a year older. Writing was one of her passions with pen friends scattered all around the world.
Oh, how Evelyn Andrews would have loved to have visited Amalfi on Italy’s west coast. For centuries Amalfi has been the European home of writing-paper made by hand. The exquisite paper is thick and creamy thanks to its traditional ingredients of cotton and pure water from local mountain streams such as the River Canneto. Rough edges give it a distinctive, regal appearance.
We discovered it only by luck while visiting Amalfi recently on the boutique mega-cruiser SeaDream I. Christophe Cornu, executive hotel manager for SeaDream Yacht Club alerted us to Tabula, a tiny shop in the Piazza Duomo, the busy square in front of the town’s cathedral. He was planning to visit Tabula later in the day to buy souvenirs as presents for friends in Europe, the United States and Australia.
‘For centuries, the Popes and ambassadors of European nations have bought Amalfi paper for their official letters,’ Christophe explained. ‘Even today!’ Well, if it’s good enough for Pope Francis, it’s good enough for us. Christophe’s advice was spot on.
A walk through an archway that linked the water-front and its bustling cafes and tourist shops to the Piazza Duomo, and there was this veritable Aladdin’s Cave of every conceivable trinket associated with the art of paper-making.
Not only the beautiful, soft paper itself, lovingly made in a painstaking process, and each sheet with a unique watermark … but quill pens made from genuine birds feathers, personalised seals, leather-bound notebooks, unique bookmarks, as well as ancient maps and prints (on Amalfi-made writing-paper, of course). Status symbols every one of them. And rightly so! It is a throwback to the Middle Ages when Amalfi was a thriving maritime nation. Back then it was a more important sea power than either Venice or Genoa.
Merchants from Amalfi traded with countries around the world bringing many innovations to Europe, including paper-making. It is believed it was learned in the 11th century from the Arabs, who had previously brought the craft from China. It wasn’t long before notaries given the task of writing official documents for European governments moved from parchment made from sheepskin to paper. News of its advantages quickly spread and poets and novelists also headed for nearby Naples as well as Amalfi to have their books published on the new invention.
Suddenly, the former ‘naval republic’ had become the ‘paper republic’. In Amalfi’s Valle dei Mulini (Valley of the Mills) there were once scores of factories pulping and pressing the paper but not these days. After all, how can you make a decent profit from paper that takes 24 hours to make one single sheet?
In an effort to keep memories of the industry alive the locals point tourists to the Museo della Carta. It is a defunct medieval mill, donated by the Milano family, arguably the town’s most famous paper-makers. The mill had its origins way back in 1250. The family gave it to the town as a present in 1969 and it has since been restored and all the equipment is fully operational.
As the proud locals explain, the Amalfi paper will never deteriorate. And a guide points to several samples in the museum: “We have sheets here from the 16th century and they look as though they were made only yesterday.” Many of the thriving restaurants in the town also have their menus written on hand-made Amalfi writing-paper. Many have the yellow stains of another local product, the Italian liqueur Limoncello.
But that’s a SeaDream story for another day!
-Malcolm Andrews is an Australian author and travel writer