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Old European Origami

Kevin Kinney asks about the European tradition of paperfolding and in particular asks first about the "Strong Moorish/Spanish tradition" referred to by Peter Engel in 2Origami, Angelfish to Zen" and secondly about Leonardo as a paperfolder.

A full answer would take a book, but here are a few comments "off the cuff". I am sorry for the disorder and inadequacy of these jottings and would emphasise that a proper treatment would take at least a book. Particularly for the 19th and 20th centuries, there is very much more to be said.

1. First, a general, but necessary and important comment: The subject of the History of Paperfolding is beset by enormous amount of conjecture which is based on little substantial fact. Sadly it is all too easy for one person's bright and intelligent idea to become another person's strong conjecture, and then to emerge as yet another person's established fact. Origami books are full of what they put forward as history but which are no more than conjecture and misleading conjecture at that.

I have the greatest respect for Peter Engel and for his magnificent book: "Folding the Universe: Origami from Angelfish to Zen". Sadly, I think the weakest section is that on the history of paperfolding. I think that Peter would openly admit that his research into this aspect of paperfolding was not primary but was based on what other people had written. Indeed, he lists the sources of his information. I don't think he can be blamed for their inadequacies. The pity is that some of those sources contain too much conjecture and too little established fact. Having said that, I must admit that firm fact is hard to come by in the history of paperfolding. As I have pointed our, there is no archaeology of paperfolding. That is not absolutely true. There is the folded Egyptian papyrus map in a museum in Milan. But that is an exceptional relic preserved in an exceptionally dry climate. Most paper, especially of a "trivial" kind has a very brief existence.

2. Leonardo is indeed quoted frequently as having been a "great paperfolder". He may have experimented with paper or paper-like materials during the course of his experiments. But where is the evidence? Perhaps the main reference is in Edward Kallop's introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition at the Cooper Union Museum in New York in 1959, "Plane Geometry and Fancy Figures". This was reprinted in Samuel Randlett's "Art of Origami" in 1961. Kallop states that a number of Leonardo's geometric exercises are found in the Codex Atlanticus and he says that one in particular is a near duplicate of the typical folded aeroplane of today. Kallop gives references in his notes at the end of his article. I have never been able to inspect the Codex Atlanticus or a facsimile copy, but Roberto Morassi has done so and in Roberto's opinion, none of Kallop's references relates to paper folding

A few months ago, the subject of Leonardo and paperfolding came up in Origami-L and it is my intention to write a short article about it. Unfortunately it has got behind in the queue. But one day I will get down to it!

Now for other things:

3. There is no evidence whatsoever of any derivation of Spanish paperfolding from the Moors. It would, indeed, seem reasonable to suppose that the Moors, who introduced paper making into the Iberian Peninsula during their occupation over many centuries, would have brought with them paperfolding as well. They might well have done, but in the absence of even the slightest piece of evidence, any suggestions about this are pure conjecture.

4. Attention is often drawn to Moorish patterns as at the Alhambra Palace and their superficial similarity to the crease patterns of Origami. Unfortunately the resemblance is wholly superficial and a close comparison shows that there is no discernible relationship.

5. I owe a great deal to my friend Vicente Palacios of Spain for my knowledge of early European instances of paperfolding. The amount of research he has done is amazing and he has turned up some very important information, which has only been partly disclosed in his published books. More appears in "Pajarita", the magazine of the Spanish Paperfolding Association. I must stress, however, that I do not always agree with some of the interpretations that Vicente puts upon the material he has discovered.

Vicente discounts any Moorish contribution to Spanish paperfolding. In his opinion, Spanish paperfolding is indigenous to European Spain and owes its devising to the Christian Spaniards. Indeed he claims that Spanish paperfolding was developed before eastern paperfolding, a suggestion which I find unlikely in view of the fact that true paper was introduced into Europe much later than into eastern countries, including Japan. The evidence he has adduced seems to me to indicate that Spanish folding was merely part of the general European history of paperfolding. European folding may possibly have originated in complete isolation from eastern folding (note that I cautiously write "eastern folding" and not "Japanese folding"), but we cannot be sure that a knowledge of paperfolding techniques was not brought to Europe from the east along the Silk route or along the sea routes or even (despite any evidence) with the knowledge of paper-making, via the Arabs. Vicente Palacios goes so far as to claim that paperfolding could have spread from the West to the East, this seems to me to be very unlikely.

4. It should be mentioned that much of the history of paperfolding may be concealed in the folding of cloth. Pleating of cloth has been known form Egyptian times and in the 16th Century there was a great vogue for wealthy people to decorate their tables with elaborate constructions of pleated and cross-pleated table napkins. We also have a few illustrations of individually folded table napkins of the modern kind. There is an illustration of a water bomb base, so we can be certain that paperfolding techniques, if only of an elementary kind, were known in Europe in the 16th Century. One paperfolding, the Hi Koi or Scarlet Carp ( Randlett's "Art of Origami", p.92) is an example of a folding that seems more appropriate to cloth than to paper.

5 .In the Middle Ages, from the fourth Century A.D. the Popes were attended by elaborate ceremonial fans, usually made from ostrich feathers. They were known as "flabelli" (plural). Palacios has discovered that in later centuries and up to the 14th century some flabelli were made not from feathers, but from folded parchment.

6.In his efforts to prove the antiquity of the Spanish "Pajarita" or folded bird, Vicente Palacios has remarked on the similarity of the folded pattern of the Pajarita to the pattern of the "Astrological Square". This was the curious square design which was normally used for casting horoscopes of people, places and events form the 12th Century until as late as the 19th Century when it was discarded in favour of the circular diagrams which one would think were much more appropriate from depicting the circular movement of the heavens.

Th. astrological Square appears to have been invented by the Italian Gerardo Cremone at Toledo in the 12th Century. There is no evidence that Gerardo did, in fact, take his design from folded paper, but paper had been introduced into Toledo (which was an enormously important centre of learning of Christians, Jews and Moslems) in1087, so it might have been possible. Nor is there any evidence that horoscopes were ever folded up into pajarita or multiform patterns.. So far we have no more than a conjecture. But there is a further development which suggests that there may be a connection between the astrological square and paperfolding. In parts of France, Southern Germany and Austria, it became the custom for Certificates of Baptism to be written on paper divided up in the pattern of the multiform or astrological square. They were the folded into a double blintz, (which is a stage in folding a pajarita or other multiform folds.) It is very tempting to suggest that baptismal certificates originated as horoscopes, but became modified as the Church distanced herself from astrology after the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. We may hope that further evidence will come to light.

7. Yet another of Vicente Palacios's discoveries is also conjectural, but not without a quite strong element of persuasion:

John Holywood was an English mathematician and astronomer of the 13th Century. He became a professor at the University of Paris and was known on the Continent as Johannes de Sacrobosco. He is chiefly know for his work in Latin called "Tractatu de Spaera Mundi" ("Treatise on the Sphere of the World"). With the introduction of printing, printed versions of this book were made and it ran into many editions. In particular, an edition was published in Venice in 1490 and is illustrated with wood cuts. One of them illustrating the mechanism of a solar eclipse has a picture of the world at the centre - not like a NASA picture from space, but showing a town in the background and the sea in front. And on the sea (purely as decoration) there are two boats which have an uncanny resemblance to the simple paper boats which ever child learns to fold from a paper hat. Of course, there is now way of proving that the artist really had paper boats in mind, but from the curve of the gunwales and the position of the elementary sails, it looks very possible and surprisingly the majority of the paperfolding "experts" whom Palacios has consulted are of the the opinion that they are paper boats. At least it encourages us to continue looking for further evidence.

8. In 1614, John Webster, an English playwright contemporary with Shakespeare, put on his play, "the Duchess of Malfi". (Malfi is the same as Amalfi, the little town, once an independent republic, to the south of Naples and the Sorrento peninsula. Curiously enough, Amalfi was one of the places where paper was first made in Italy. Hand-made paper is still manufactured in two small factories in Amalfi). In his play Webster writes of the paper prisons which boys use to imprison flies.

This surely can be a reference to none other than the waterbomb. This use of the waterbomb for this purpose is known from modern China and even modern Egypt. The fly is caught and put into the waterbomb, which amplifies the buzzing of the tortured fly to the delight of the small boys. They do other naughty things with water bombs, too!

9. Around 1660, the diarist, Samuel Pepys mentions a basket made out of paper. No more information! Infuriating!

10 About the same time John Selden compares religion to a "jugglers paper": "Now it is a horse, now it is a lantern, now it is a boar, now it is a man". This would suggest "Troublewit" except that only the lantern would be possible in troublewit, which could never depict human or animal form. We have to admit that we really don't know what Selden was thinking about.

11. Another contribution by Vicente Palacios: He has found a report that in 1757, a boy, Guillermo Pen, of Spain was able to make for his friends "Kites, boats, ships, birds and many other things, all out of paper". Palacios states that this is the first concrete evidence directly about paperfolding that he has found. Incidentally, Vicnete Palacios has adduced a great amount of evidence about the word "Pajarita", but it relates to the use of the word for a small bird or for a young woman, or even the name of an operetta, and little early evidence, if any, applies to the paper bird of the name.

12. There is a report about a blind man in Greenwich Park, outside London, in about 1790 who was able to make many shapes our of paper. But were they cut or folded or made by a combination of cutting and folding? Some of these references really are tantalising.

13. But we are now coming up to recent times. There seems no doubt that in the 18th Centtury, paperfolding was generally widespread in Europe, though we wish that more people had taken the time to write about it in clear terms! Friedrich Froebel, who was born in 1782 was familiar with paper folding in his childhood. It seems that a paper fold of a miner, similar to the "Suit of Clothes" was a popular model in the mining districts of south Germany.

14. Elsje van der Ploeg has discovered a drawing in Holland dating from 1806 depicting a little boy sailing what we usually call the Chinese junk in a teacup. This is the first dat4ed and unambiguous illustration of a paper fold in Europe. Was it introduced by sailors from the East?

15. In the 19th Century, records of paperfolding in Europe multiply. There is a collection of folded soldiers on horses in the German national Museum at Neuremburg; Friedrich Froebel introduced paperfolding into his kindergartens as part of his "learning through play" system. The around 1880, the Flapping bird was introduced into Europe from the East. Japanese Jugglers are always put forward as the people responsible for this, but we cannot be sure that Chinese jugglers were not involved. The jumping frog came at the same time.

16. Books began to be published, especially in connection with the Froebel kindergarten. But there were also recreational books. One of the earliest in English was "Cassell's Book of Indoor Amusements, Card Games and Fireside Fun," originally published in 1881, which contained a few folds.

17. Notwithstanding the difficulty of pinpointing the origin of the pajarita, there does seem to have been a particularly strong tradition of paperfolding in Spain at this time and there are reports that it was carried on in the villages, where often someone could be found who was an expert. Unfortunately, these village folders were not recorded and it seems sad that their work has now been lost beyond recall. There is also reported to have been paperfolding in Spanish prisons.

18. Miguel Unamuno, the great Spanish poet and philosopher became enthusiastic about paperfolding and at first made a study of the Pajarita. He wrote a satire about it in 1902. The introduction of the flapping bird into Europe had, by definition, brought with it the knowledge of the bird base and Unamuno experimented with the bird base, especially with that form of it known as "the sideways turn". He was, in fact the first to devise new models of animals and birds using the bird base, anticipating the work of Akira Yoshizaa of Spain by sojme thirty years. His experiments were later continued in Argentina by Dr,.Vicente Solorzano, Ligia Montoya and the Italian, Giordano Lareo.

19. In the English-speaking world, stage magicians made a major contribution to paperfolding. Dollar bill folding became a vogue in North America just before the Second World War, and conjurors like Martin Gardner made major contributions to the general development of folding.

20. In general, however the folding of northern Europe and north America was well behind that of Spain and South America. There was folding, but it was quite elementary and largely centred around paper 'planes and the multiform folds.

21. All this was to change in the 1950's largely because of three people: Gershon Legman, Robert Harbin and Lillian Oppenheimer. But that is another story.

22. Carlos Alberto Furuti's suppositions in his posting of 19th August are pretty well right, But they are a very skeletal outline and very much more detail and clarification can be filled in. I notice that he lists several of Vicente Palacios's books. They contain a vast amount of information, and I have benefited from them immensely, but I urge that his books should be approached critically. If this is done, they will yield immense results.

23. The history of Japanese folding is something different again and I am bound to say that popular ideas about it are far from what really happened. Japanese Origami has a history of two hundred years of creative folding by adults running parallel with simple or children's folding. The bird and frog bases were known many years before they came to the West. On the other hand, cutting in Japanese origami was extensively practised. Yes, in some ways the development of paperfolding in the west paralleled that of Japan, but such a statement is only very superficial. The real revolution in Japanese origami came with Akira Yoshizawa. His work became generally known in Japan only in 1952. It became known in the West only three years later in 1955. Akira Yoshizawa is just as much part of the history of Western paperfolding as he is of Japanese origami.

24. Perhaps I may draw attention to my own writings on a wide variety of aspects of the history of paperfolding. I regret that few of them have been published, but a search in the Origami-L Archives should reveal some of the shorter postings I have sent to Origami-L on various aspects during the past eighteen months. I also draw attention to my paper: "Some Observations on the History of Paperfolding In Japan and the West". This was the paper I read at the Otsu Meeting in Japan in 1994 and repeated at the Second Conference of Origami in Education and Therapy (COET 95) in New York in June 1995. It has been reprinted in the proceedings of this Conference, which have been published by Origami USA.

25. There remains much to do, but the general outline of the history of paperfolding is beginning to take shape. I only hope that I shall be able to write about it in greater detail and (which will be much more difficult) find a publisher.


David Lister Grimsby, England.

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