The Paper Mill Valley: an industrial archaeology site in the heart of a Nature Reserve

A universe of small, ancient industries on the Lake of Garda

Lucia Maffei

On June 17th, 1806, Gaetano Taverna - young employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Napoleon - left Milan with the charge of “reaching the Lake of Garda with the utmost haste and discretion”. In those days, the Viceroy Eugenio Napoleone, while reading a work by a learned Italian man of letters, had been struck by the paper on which it was printed; he immediately decided to purchase that quality of paper for his offices. The Napoleonic bureaucracy, which made large use of paper, was deeply conscious of the innovative character and the historical value of the acts it issued; this is the reason that it was so confident that to the importance of those acts should correspond a dignified and lasting material. The provenance of that kind of paper - at that time called tissue-paper - was quite sure: Toscolano. Indeed this village, located on the Brescia side of the Lake of Garda, had been since the XII century one of the most renowned centres of paper production; at the time of the Republic of Venice it became an internationally renowned paper district. At the end of the XVIII century, there were 38 paper mills active along the Toscolano river, with 102 hydraulic wheels to shred rags and, in 1804, 10 Dutch cylinders were already working full-speed.

BUT THE NAPOLEONIC ADMINISTRATION NEEDED TANGIBLE EVIDENCE OF SUCH SKILLS and this could only be achieved through a visit to those paper mills to witness the various phases of tissue paper production.

Only afterwards would the visitor - sent by the government - unveil his identity, to win the papermaker’s reluctance to show his technical devices. To further dispel his doubts, he would hint at the possibility of winning one of the first prizes that would be delivered to the best manufacturers the following August. Thus strictly adhering to the instructions he had been given, at the beginning of that summer Gaetano Taverna entered the Toscolano Valley and asked to witness the papermaking process, to have some samples of the sheets produced and to assist in the smoothing process. At the Andreoli brothers’ paper mill, the few sheets produced and the tools used were enough to persuade Taverna.

SO THE ANDREOLI BROTHERS WERE IMMEDIATELY ASKED TO SHIP SAMPLES OF THEIR TISSUE PAPER AND TO DEPOSIT A DESCRIPTION OF THEIR METHODS. Encouraged, the brothers requested the “patent” of tissue paper manufacturers. In their description they explained that this kind of paper was so close to parchment that you could easily exchange one for the other; what distinguished it from other papers were the white colour, homogeneity, transparency and total absence of stains and lines derived from the mould, its doughiness. Even though they declared to have only improved tissue paper, in August 1806 they received the much-longed-for “invention patent”; it was not only a reward but also gave them a five-year exclusive right to produce and commercialise this special quality of paper in the entire kingdom.

THE FORTUNE OF THE ANDREOLI BROTHERS SEEMED NOW DECIDED. Faustino, who represented the firm, going along the same route followed only a few weeks before by Taverna, went to Milan, where he was received by Napoleon himself who gave him a sample of foreign tissue paper. The Andreolis, however, were a particularly enterprising family among Toscolano papermakers. This is testified by the fact that in a few decades the family registered a very important growth: only 70 years after Faustino had begun to work in a paper mill, his two nephews already owned two mills, whose products were appreciated also by the Ottoman Empire.

BUT AFTER A FEW DECADES, THE ACTIVITY OF THIS VALLEY - WHICH HAD ALREADY SUFFERED FOR THE FALL OF THE SERENISSIMA REPUBLIC OF VENICE, A VERY IMPORTANT CUSTOMER - CAME TO AN ABRUPT HALT. About the middle of the XIX century, the advent of the paper machine - soon introduced in many paper districts - brought to its knees the production of sheet paper in Toscolano; in a short time, this kind of paper was only used by few, exigent customers, like the composer Giuseppe Verdi who used it to print his piano scores on. The economic rebirth of the Valley began only in 1875 thanks to Andrea Maffizzoli. One of the most dynamic among local entrepreneurs, Maffizzoli introduced in Toscolano the first paper machine; the start of the production of roll paper revived the commercial success of the valley, where paper mills clung to steep slopes. At that time there were a lot of mills in the Toscolano Valley; located on different levels, they exploited all the curves of the slope. This cluster disposition allowed them to better use the water of the river, motive power and important element in papermaking. Indeed, the Toscolano river, one of the main in the Riviera mountains, represented a constant source of energy; furthermore, the favourable climate allowed to put glue on the paper also in summer, whereas in other areas of the country this process gave such negative effects on the paper’s quality, that it was actually forbidden by law. At the beginning of the XX century, with the opening of the first hydroelectric power plant, the Maffizzoli paper mill abandoned the steep Paper Mill Valley and moved to a more modern plant by the lakeside, thus starting a relentless mass migration. The history of the Toscolano paper mill goes through the entire XX century, continuously alternating vicissitudes, transfers of titles, difficult periods, such as that of the World War II bombings, and moments of expansions, such as the economic boom in the middle of the ‘50s.

“Today, the Toscolano Paper Mill, part of the Marchi Group since 1989” says Girolamo Marchi, current Group Managing Director “has inherited this important historical and entrepreneurial heritage. Not by chance the acquisition of the company also included the Paper Mill Valley. We have been immediately struck by the value of this site for its industrial tradition, and under the historical and environmental points of view. The attention of the Group for the protection of the environment and the respect for industrial archaeology led to a common project based on a criterion of sustainable recycling for the whole valley”.

THE PAPER MILL VALLEY IS TODAY INCLUDED IN THE “PARCO ALTO GARDA BRESCIANO” RESERVE and an ancient industrial plant hosts the Paper Museum. The visitor who goes along the paths of the Park climbs up the Paper Mill Valley and witnesses a unique and unforgettable landscape, where silence is broken only by the rumble of waters. The rich and abundant vegetation, which has melt with the ruins of the ancient important industrial site, creates a magic and surreal atmosphere where the sounds coming from forges, foundries, mills and oil presses have for centuries accompanied the sound of waters.•

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