Year after year, Genoa is establishing itself as one of the italian cities most loved by tourists: impossible to resist to the shady fascination of caruggi (Genoa’s old town typical little alleys), to the beauty of its Porto Antico (the “old port”), home of the famous Aquarium and of the original galleon from the movie Pirates, to the food specialties that fill the nose of the ones going around the city among a trattoria and a bakery. But there is a zone that still needs to be discovered, that is hidden at the back of the promenades on the sea and that holds landscapes and traditions less know but still pretty original: it is the backcountry, with its hills just a step away from the beaches and its historical little towns, filled with hidden treasures.
One of these, a little, important fragment of the less known history of Genoa – the one that hardly arrives to the ears of the tourists – surely is the Paper Museum in Mele.
The Paper Museum in Mele
The Centre for Paper production, collection and memory, mostly known as the Paper Museum in Mele, other than the long name, has in its denomination another peculiarity: it is not in Mele, but in the little town of Acquasanta, a place that, even being so tiny, holds many surprises as the famous Marian Sanctuary, the hot springs and a train station connecting the place to the centre of Genoa.
The Museum, for its characteristic architecture resembling a mill, is impossible to miss:
Placed on the other side of a bridge in the centre of the town, the Museum in on the banks of the Acquasanta stream: the building is an ancient paper factory (Cartiera Piccardo, also known as Sbaraggia) that was recovered and renovated, and that from the stream’s water was getting the energy necessary to work the wheel you can see on the side of it.
The paper production in Mele: a bit of history
The Sbaraggia paper factory, dating back to 1756, has been one of the last in the zone to remain in activity, closing down in 1985, but in the valley of Mele the history of paper production is rooted in older times.
In Mele and in all the Leira Valley, in fact, the paper production started in 1400 and remained for hundreds of years one of the most important for these places and the city of Genoa. Facilitated by the presence of various streams that could easily give energy to the paper mills and by the strong winds helping the drying, this production saw a prominent role during the centuries, reaching its peak around 1700, when in the zone there were almost a hundred paper factories.
Paper from Mele was renowned: considered one of the best in the world for its quality, it was moth resistent, and because of this it was used for the records of the royal families across all Europe. A little oddity: Mele’s paper was used also for printing the first american dollars.
The flourishing paper industry in the valley continued until the advent of steam engines and electricity: thanks to the new technologies, in fact, the paper factories weren’t tied anymore to the presence of water streams and they could be opened in any place; another motivation was the increase of the average production and the difficulties of transporting big quantities of paper in the narrow streets of the ligurian backcountry. Some years after the World War II the paper factories of this zone closed, leaving behind their big empty buildings, ready to be used for some other production or to be forgotten, as well as all the historical paper production in the Leira Valley.
A tradition recovered
However, since this production was a relevant one for the history of all the valley, in 1997, after a restoration made with a EEC fund, the Sbaraggia paper mill was reopened to the public.
The investment made by the Province of Genoa and Mele’s Local Council to recover the ancient tradition of paper production in these valleys didn’t stop to the recovering of the paper factory building, but also made possible the training of some Paper Masters who could on a side know, and explain to the visitors, what was once happening inside the building, on the other continue the use of the machinery and pass on the secrets of the paper from Mele.
One of them is the Master Giuseppe Traverso, who took me around the Museum for an extraordinary visit. Since of his Master title I was expecting a middle age man; instead, Giuseppe is pretty young and was able to make of an ancient craft a passion and a daily job: he is both the official museum’s guide and a Paper Master who continues the traditional paper production (in a small amount, of course) inside the paper mill.
The visit to the Museum
When I arrived, after an adventurous trip on the bus and a speedy visit to the Sanctuary, I reached for some other visitors who were there for the guided tour. The Museum is made of three floors: you enter it from a little door on the middle floor (you can see it from some giant gearwheels left there to indicate the way) and then you visit the enormous machineries used during the various periods following a path untieing on different levels, the ones that paper was going through during its production.
The first room is introductive. There are presses but, to highlight the fundamental simplicity of the production, the demonstration takes place with just a sieve and a vat:
From the second room ahead, the path unties among machineries from the three main periods: since this paper mill dates to 1700, the fiftheenth century’s production is showed with working wooden models created by the Paper Master Edoardo Tiragallo. The machines we see are testimony of the 1700’s production, when the paper was still produced with rags, and the following one, from 1850 onwards, that recycled previously used paper.
The first machinery we meet, in the second room of the Museum, is the “molassa“:
This was kinda an enormous grindstone used to mash the paper until it was becoming a homogeneous pulp; the water came from a side tap and, once the content of the big tank was mashed, it went down a floor throgh a drain hole.
We move downstairs as well and we remain surprised for how many machineries, all different from each other and difficult to understand, are in these rooms.
As first thing, this is where we can observe the ancient operation mode of the wheel outside the museum: the stream, passing through it, activated the gears inside the paper factory, that were working the machineries. These are some of them:
In the room there is also one of the most important machines in the production of all the epoques: it is called “olandese” and it is the machinery connected to the molassa on the upstairs floor: they could be rags or recycled paper, but passing through this they ended being a smooth mash, called “pisto“.
The mash then was passing thorugh a long corridor to arrive to a machinery made from different presses that were transforming it in paper, winded up in enormous rolls in the “aspa“.
The rolls were cut in paper sheets from the Paper Masters at the worktable next to it, where the eyes of the boss were looking at them even when he wasn’t around 😉
(In the picture: “Always work as the boss is at your side”)
Finally, the sheets of precious paper from Mele were put in the drying space on the last floor of the paper mill, called “spandiu“.
Here they were naturally drying thanks to special shutters that were inclined to take advantage of the wind blowing in the valley.
At the end of the visit there is a marvellous little shop of the Museum, where you can purchase notebooks and accessories created with the paper crafted inside the paper factory.
The Paper Museum is a pretty good manner to pass an hour immersed in an ancient and characteristic production, discovering a less known but still important tradition of Genoa.
If you are interested to the paper production art, you can visit the museum and also take part to one of the many workshops held inside; you can find the list on the official Facebook page.
via Acquasanta 251
Times: Wednesday – Sunday 11.30am-5.00pm
Normal: 4 Euro
Guided tour: 5 Euro
Thanks to Dr. Federica Ferrando, the Master Giuseppe Traverso and the Cultural Association “Le Muse” for the marvellous visit 🙂