A Ripple, Captured

Marbled Paper

By Vilnius University Library

Suminagashi marbling technique (19th-20th c.)Vilnius University Library

Marbled paper is a paper decoration technique that is closely related to the Eastern cultures. Suminagashi paper decoration technique from Far East gradually spread towards the West and became very popular in Persian and Arab countries. Considerably changed there, it became a significant part of calligraphy art and illumination of manuscripts. At present marbling technique ebru is a national heritage of Turkey.

A manuscript copy of a map from the Book of Roger (19th c.) by Joachim LelewelVilnius University Library

In the second part of the 16th century, as cultural exchange with the Ottoman Empire increased, marbled paper had reached the Holy Roman Empire and other European countries as an intriguing object, enchanting decoration technique which, at least for some time, was kept a secret.

Steganographic mirror (1646) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

The early marbled paper coming to Europe through the Middle East was called “Turkish paper”. It was named by Athanasius Kircher, who, as early as in 1646, one of the first in Europe, in his book Ars Magna Lvcis et Vmbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadow) gave a detailed description of the marbling technique and presented it as one of intriguing phenomena of chemistry and optics.

Description of the marbling process (1646) by Athanasius KircherVilnius University Library

After presenting a mixture necessary to produce marbled paper, the decoration process, obtained colours and forms, Kircher addresses the reader:   

"Thus, it doesn't matter which one of the described methods is to be chosen, he [the reader] will no doubt find the gate open to him to inexhaustible discoveries, which I leave to the curious reader to explore by himself."

It is thought that the author himself possessed some skills in marbling and demonstrated them to his students.  

Marbled paper cover (19th c.)Vilnius University Library

Paper marblers (c. 1751 - c. 1766) by Denis Diderot, Jean R. AlambertVilnius University Library

By the time when the first comprehensive and illustrated description of marbling technique was published in the second half of the 18th century in Europe in Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert's Encyclopédie, marbled paper was already quite well known and widely spread. It is thought that marblers used to gather into separate guilds.  

[Fig. 1.] Thickened water with the tragacanth gum (Astragalus gummifer and other plants of this species) is being prepared. 

[Fig. 2.] Paints are made of pigments, binding agent, water and ox gall (bile).

[Fig. 3.] Paints are dripped in the thickened water. They do not drown or mix with each other – they stay on the surface while they spread.

[Fig. 4.] A desired pattern is formed with special tools.

[Fig. 5.] A specially prepared sheet of paper is placed on the surface of water.

[Fig. 6, 7, 8.] Marbled paper sheets are dried, at first, in diagonal position and then hanged.

Marbling and marble rock (18th c.)Vilnius University Library

As marbling technique improved, more and more differing patterns were obtained, each of which had a more or less established historical title or one given by researchers. The basis for nearly all of them, however, is the Turkish pattern, not dissimilar to marble rock.

Curls (2nd half of 18th c.)Vilnius University Library

In the second half of the 17th century and throughout the 18th century, French curl was a very popular pattern of marbled paper.

Combed marbled paper (18th c.)Vilnius University Library

Combed patterns are created with a special tool called a comb as portrayed in the article of Encyclopédie:

“[...] then with a comb they hold by the head with both hands, they comb the surface of the liquor in the trough from one end to the other, being sure to only dip the teeth. If this operation is done with a prompt, uniform movement, it produces these clouds and  undulations whereon much of the beauty of this paper depends.”

Spanish wave pattern (18-19th c.)Vilnius University Library

It is considered that wavy patterns had firstly appeared in Spain, therefore such pattern is called Spanish, or Spanish wave. This pattern effect is created by stirring the marbled sheet by repetitive movements.

Some more books dedicated to marbling technique and revealing many secret technologies had been published at the end of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century. Many original patterns were created in Europe at the time, while marbling technique was improved by some new, previously unused ingredients. Identification of such patterns on book covers helps to establish the exact period of bookbinding more accurately.

Shell pattern of marbled paper (19th c.) by ,Vilnius University Library

Shell pattern was created similarly to the Turkish one, only before sprinkling the chosen dominating colour some oily substances are added to the paint. Thus, as the drop falls, it forms a certain lighter halo, which is a distinctive feature of the pattern.

Stormont pattern (19th c.)Vilnius University Library

The Stormont, or granite pattern was another marbling technique that appeared in the 19th century, a distinctive feature of which was tiny white dots that were obtained by adding some thinner, mostly turpentine to the paint.

Combination of Stormont and shell patterns (19th c.)Vilnius University Library

Quite often several marbling techniques were combined in the same sheet. Here you can see the combination of Stormont and shell pattern.

Book-shaped case (19th-20th c.)Vilnius University Library

A case for document protection in the shape of a book. Walls of the case are covered with the marbled paper decorated in French curl pattern.   

Book edge marbling (c. 1751 - c. 1766) by Denis Diderot, Jean R. AlambertVilnius University Library

Book edges were also marbled: the block would be strongly compressed and edges were dipped into the marbling bath with paints (figure on the left).

Marbled book edges (18th c.)Vilnius University Library

The patterns of marbled paper left a significant mark in the tradition of European décor. In the 19th and the 20th century, even after the change of decoration techniques, for some time the patterns of marbled paper were maintained as a certain aspiration. When looking for creative solutions to change complex techniques, a great many sorts of so-called fake marbled paper had appeared in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century.

Marbled paper imitation (20th c.)Vilnius University Library

Decorative paper cover. Industrial production, The mid-20th c., From the collection of: Vilnius University Library
Decorative paper cover. Industrial production, The mid-20th c., From the collection of: Vilnius University Library
Decorative paper cover. Industrial production, The mid-20th c., From the collection of: Vilnius University Library
Show lessRead more

Tales of Decorated Paper is a five-part story.

<< The second part A Swarm, Landed. Sprinkled Paper
The fourth part A Soft Footprint. Paste Paper >>

Credits: Story

Original idea and research by Ieva Rusteikaitė. Creators and contributors: Gediminas Auškalnis, Gediminas Bernotas, Kristina Gudavičienė, Nijolė Klingaitė-Dasevičienė, Raimondas Malaiška, Vida Steponavičienė, Marija Šaboršinaitė, Jonė Šulcaitė-Brollo.

For professional consultations and the attention given during the creation of this story we are grateful to our colleagues from the Manuscripts, Graphic Arts, Rare Books and Documental Heritage Preservation divisions of Vilnius University Library – Paulius Bagočiūnas, Monika Baublytė, Virgilija Guogienė, Linas Jablonskis, Valentina Karpova-Čelkienė, Sondra Rankelienė, Aušra Rinkūnaitė, Sigitas Tamulis, and Brigita Zorkienė.

We would like to express our special gratitude to the head of the VU Museum of Zoology, Dr Grita Skujienė, for her inspirational cooperation. The exhibits from the collection of zoologist, ornithologist Count Konstanty Tyzenhauz (1786–1853), kept in Vilnius University Museum of Zoology, conclude the second part of Tales of Decorated Paper

Tales of Decorated Paper were enriched by three objects from earlier research in VU Library’s collections. The mottled gilt material cover of Filozof indyjski... (Warsaw, 1769) by Robert Dodsley and Mikołaj Rej was presented before in Bibliotheca Curiosa (Vilnius: Vilnius University Press, 2016) compiled by Sondra Rankelienė and Indrė Saudargienė. In addition, the publications from the collection Knygos menas (The Art of Book) compiled by Sondra Rankelienė, Aušra Rinkūnaitė, Guoda Gediminskaitė, Brigita Zorkienė, and Irena Katilienė published in the spring of 2020 – that is, Jacobus Wallius’ Poematum libri novem... (Nuremberg, 1737) and Joseph Penso de la Vega’s Rumbos peligrosos... (Antwerp, 1683) – have also joined the Tales where they – hopefully – revealed their significance. We are also grateful to Sondra Rankelienė for her suggestion of using [Onufry Kopczyński’s] GRAMATYKA DLA SZKOŁ NARODOWYCH NA KLASSĘ I (1780), whose jacket featuring the inventive use of coloured wallpaper we included in the first part of the Tales.

Tales of Decorated Paper were created in Vilnius University library – the oldest and largest academic library in Lithuania. The present-day library preserves over 5 million documents, with the oldest being over 8 centuries old. VU Library aims to spread the wealth of knowledge stored in its troves with the community and society.


Bagdzevičienė, Jurga, Kruopaitė, Laima. Pigmentai ir dažikliai restauruojant kultūros vertybes. Vilnius: Savastis, 2005.

“Marbled paper” in Diderot, Denis. Encyclopédie Méthodique: Ou Par Ordre De Matières; Par Une Société De Gens De Lettres, De Savans Et D’Artistes. 1751 – 1772. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=did;cc=did;rgn=main;view=text;idno=did2222.0001.236.

Doizy, Marie-Ange. De la dominoterie à la marbrure: histoire des techniques traditionnelles de la décoration du papier. Paris: Art & Métiers du Livre, 1996.

Krause, Susanne; Rinck Julia. Buntpapier - ein Bestimmungsbuch / Decorated Paper - A Guide Book / Sierpapier - Een gids. Stuttgart: Dr. Ernst Hauswedell & Co. KG, Verlag, 2016.

Veléz Celemín, Antonio. El Marmoleado. De papel de guardas a la obra de arte. Madrid: Ollero y Ramos, 2012.

Wolfe, Richard J. Marbled Paper. Its History, Techniques, and Patterns: with Special Reference to the Relationship of Marbling to Bookbinding in Europe and the Western World. Philadelphia: Pensylvania University Press, 1990.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps