The Turkish practice of “paper marbling”, using on a natural element that is almost impossible to model and shape.
“Written in water” is used when we are referring to something that is volatile or impossible to hold, therefore ephemeral.
For centuries, Western culture has told us that writing in water is like writing in the wind. It means in nothing. Words, promises and images written in water do not have the consistency compared to what is written on stone or bronze, offering something eternal and long-lasting.
In Turkey, on the contrary, drawing on water is an ancient and valued practice. This art form is called “Ebru“, and the reference to the wind is far from random. The word comes from the ancient Persian word ”ebri“, meaning cloud. The term wonderfully highlights this art, where chance and skill interact in a manner that is quite difficult to govern.
Ebru masters enjoyed high regard in the Turkish court. However, the first examples were found in Japan starting in the IX century, used for the “waka”, compositions of a few verses dedicated to nature and love.
Transported from the Far East, through Central Asia, by the caravans that traveled through the Silk Road, this technique would reach Turkey, seeing a vast diffusion between the 16th and 20th centuries.
The technique requires special skills and expertise, despite its apparent simplicity. Water is poured into a large and shallow tray, and then resinous substances (to make it more consistent) and pigment (to create a color base) are added. The preparation is quite laborious and can last up to 12 hours. Drops of color are poured onto this “added” water, which are then moved with sticks to create both abstract decorations, in sort of “marbling”, as well as figures such as flowers or other subjects.
Once the piece was finished, a sheet of paper was placed on the surface of the water, which was then removed with great care, and only when the artist was sure that the drawing on the water had been absorbed. There was no margin for errors. If the drops of color had not been properly moved, there was no way to fix the piece. Even the application and removal of the paper was an extremely delicate moment. The final creation was the result of chance, but it also depended on the artist’s control.
Above all, however, it represents a successful attempt to harness the uncontrollable, that is, the movement of water. This art required a vast amount of technical skill and self-control. Although the final result is an image that has the precariousness and indefiniteness of the movements of the water, rationality of the mind guides the hand. These indefinable aspects, paired with the artist’s control, are finally immobilized on paper.
There is a profound wisdom behind this technique. It requires control, yet at the same time leaves room for chance, for something indeterminable. Islamic mystics saw a metaphor for the Divine there. The falling drop is the hidden intervention of the Creator. In turn, this interacts with the hand that models the art. Ebru is the perfect metaphor for the relationship between God and man, the divine impulse on the one hand and the work of man who completes it.
Ebru followed the events and fate of the Ottoman Empire. As long as this was powerful, the technique was widespread, used in the decoration of official documents, letters and decrees, as well as also books and more. Once the decline of the sultans began, the technique also lost importance, reducing itself to a something of a marginal and rather unimportant decoration.
However, this did not prevent this technique from spreading around Europe in the meanwhile.
Today, in our disenchanted Western world, an art that required numerous years of apprenticeship under the guidance of teachers is within everyone’s reach, albeit highly trivialized. On the web, numerous tutorials offer homemade recipes with less noble but easily available materials and simplified techniques that have nothing to do with this ancient art. What was once a noble art is now used as an antidepressant therapy. However, ancient wisdom still survives, notwithstanding some difficulty. Today there are very few master artists in Turkey who continue the tradition.
In Italy, Alberto Valese is the only foreigner considered a Master in Turkey. He discovered the technique by chance in the 1970s, in a Parisian manuscript. Intrigued by this original and complex technique, he purchased a text on this art in Istanbul and then began his experiments in Venice.
This marked the beginning of a thriving business, following ancient teachings (https://www.albertovalese-ebru.it/new).
Who knows what the English poet John Keats would have said, having died at the age of 25 and did not want his name to be written on his grave, simply the words, “Here lies a man whose name was written in water “.
Anna Maria Calabretta