Tag Archives: decorated paper

Decorated papers in the covers of librettos of opera

In the beginning of July of 2016 I finished my study on techniques of decorated papers of the second half of 18th century, which was presented as a final work of the Master of Direction of Projects in Conservation-Restoration at University of Barcelona.


xviii-3226t copia
A sample of decorated paper in the cover of libretto. Nº XVIII-3226, Biblioteca de Reserva of University of Barcelona (source).


During the work,  I also made few experiments on making some samples of decorated paper by myself in order to define precisely the features of traditional paper decoration techniques. I also made a reconstruction of the binding structure of a sample of libretto of opera.

I hope to continue to work on this interesting topic in other cultural and historical contexts in the very near future. Here I submbit a summary of my work in English:

“Decorated paper in the collection of librettos of opera of the University of Barcelona”


The main objective of the present study consists of the investigation and description of a collection of librettos of opera preserved in the Library of University of Barcelona (Biblioteca de Reserva de la Universitat de Barcelona). The study also makes a special focus on the techniques of manufacturing of decorated papers used in the covers of the documents. Moreover this investigation reflects on current limits of the researches made on decorated paper. Unlike most of the studies which are based on a synthetic approach embracing the whole history of paper decoration techniques, the present study provides an analytical view, combined with a perspective from book an paper conservation, applied to a particular case of the collection of librettos. The study presents a detailed description of seventy-six specimens of the collection made during individual examination of every document and it’s conditions of conservation.  A map of quantitative and qualitative information showing the structures of binding, printing processes, a typology of paper decoration techniques and pathologies of their conservation status was created, according to the results of the examination of the collection. Finally, some proposals for the better preservation are made and the description of the collection is amplified by contextualizing the types of paper decoration found in the collection through comparison with similar examples, available in other European libraries, including the same editions of librettos preserved in the Library of Catalonia (Biblioteca de Catalunya).


Some notes on decorated papers


A small book of libretto of opera covered by paste paper (source)

Lately I’m working on a study about decorated papers used for covers of XVIIIth century librettos of opera. This slow work is mainly dedicated to the description of decorating techniques with some intention to propose a sort of taxonomy of decorated papers, that actually reminds some kind of botanical or zoological classification of immense variety and families of “species” of the decoration.

It seems that the oldest european decorated paper is dated on the second half of XVth century. The monochrome red decoration was applied by simple brush to the back of the playing cards in Stuttgart city.

An example of a french type of “domino” paper decorated by woodcut print and painted by hand (source)

Another old technique is woodcut printing that was used not only for artwork or illustration, but as well for decoration of fabrics and playing cards.

Meanwhile likely most exotic technique, the marbling, was introduced step by step by travelers to and from the Middle East and it was only around XVIth century when europeans finally learned secrets about the peculiar ingredients and achieved required technical skills.

Marbled paper (source)

However the true golden age of decorated papers in Europe was the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries, when new techniques such as precious embossed and gilt paper was introduced in  to the market.

In any case, it seems that originally decorated papers were introduced into the european everyday’s life as a replacement of precious oriental fabrics and tissues. Very often the same old masters of old textile industry were involved into the decoration of paper. It was a much cheaper material of the lining of big and small boxes, inside of the wardrobes, drawers or chests,  it was used for endsheets of the bigger books or for covers of the smaller ones, even just for wrapping of goods and presents, and finally it became a material to decorate the walls.

Gilt brocade paper (source)

Phenomenologically speaking, we have a material that had so much to do with interiority, even if you see these papers not only inside, but on top as well. As a decoration of enclosed, intimate and even occult spaces these papers presented the same qualities as a mother-of-pearl inside the shell.

In this way the flatness and superficiality that traditionally were attributed to the decoration get a sort of deeper layer of significance. What is more, with their repetitive tiny patterns these lining materials even extends these enclosed and bounded spaces into something much wider and more abstract.


Reiseapotheke GNM
Travel pharmacy box of XVIII century with lining of gilt brocade paper (source)


XIX century poison cabinet with marbled edges and shaped as book (source)


The pleasant part of the study includes a contemplation of these irregular prints and color patterns, so often too naive for our contemporary eyes and taste. Probably the great majority of contemporary designers delighted by these smooth perfect and delicately shaded products couldn’t easily appreciate, for example, these paste paper patterns, too irregular, too baroque, too picturesque for our nowadays lineal (in Wölfflin’s sense) taste, which is still so rooted in the functionalist esthetics.

The study of decorated papers provokes a natural wish to understand how exactly these paper decorators and bookbinders worked on these designs and what kind of techniques they applied. This inspires to try to recreate or improvise with some patterns by myself. Just like these two old style notebooks.


My own paste paper notebooks


For a label for the title I used this brilliant old idea of labels cut of paper that could be shaped in very sophisticated ways.

A book cover with Morvian paste paper of XVIIIth century and complicated shape of label of (source)
A book with oval label (source)










Apart of these questions, the contemplation of these prints also makes me think about that sort of ephemeral craft, that was meant to be used not as the Art in the first place, but as an applied art and decoration. It is a strange transformation when the beautiful and banal surprisingly overcomes its own ephemerality and becomes a part of humankind history.