Antique books often contain marbled endpapers with exquisite, almost hypnotic patterns and colors, and the mystique that surrounds the tradition is almost traceable in every wave, whorl, and spiral. Marbling is believed to have originated in China more than 1,000 years ago; it was later known as suminagashi, or "ink floating," in Japan and as ebru, or "cloud art," in Persia. The art traveled west (most notably to Venice and Florence) via the Silk Road and other trade routes, and reached its apex from 1500 to 1700, when travelers to Istanbul would regularly depart with sheets of the much-coveted "Turkish marble paper," which would usually be bound into books. Part of the paper's appeal was the intrigue that surrounded its creation: The technique was passed on from masters to their apprentices (usually members of the same family) under oaths of secrecy. But this process was ultimately the art's undoing: As time passed, commercial publishers found that these labor-intensive processes were prohibitively expensive, and marbling was reserved for the most exceptional volumes.
Florence is still known for its beautiful marbled paper, and Enrico Giannini's family founded its Florentine bookbinding business, Giulio Giannini e Figlio, in 1856. His great-great-grandfather was renowned for his meticulous hand-stitching, his father for his inlaid leather, and Enrico for his skill at marbling paper. Today, the company is known more for Enrico's breathtaking marbled papers than for its bookbindery, and Enrico's paper is sold at specialty shops around the world.
The first ingredient used to marble paper is glue, which Enrico makes by boiling seaweed in water. He pours the glue into a tray, dips a paintbrush into a container of paint, and taps the handle so that the paint splatters onto the glue. Enrico mixes his own paints using his grandfather's recipe, which calls for a mixture of synthetic liquid pigments and ox gall (derived from ox livers). He creates the marbled patterns using various tools, such as homemade combs, skewers, and even porcupine quills to swirl the colors over the glue's surface. Once the design is ready, Enrico gently places a sheet of paper on top to absorb the colors and patterns. After it dries, it can be used as endpaper or to create exquisite frames or boxes.