Italian Diamond Design

Italian Diamond Design

March 21, 2019

When we revive or reinterpret a design, we look to its origins. We want to know where it came from, how it was produced, and how it sits in the context of design trends of the time. The basis for our Italian Diamond design is a pattern that was printed from wooden blocks with a colored paste-like ink.

papillon papers italian diamond paste paper

18th Century domino paper. From Carte Decorate Nella Legatoria del '700 by Piccarda Quilici.

Sometimes referred to as "paste paper", these papers are technically block printed papers, or domino papers, and were produced in great numbers in the 18th Century and earlier.In paste paper making, the colored paste or ink is applied directly to the paper and manipulated with various tools like combs, brushes, sponges, fingers, or anything else that will result in a pattern.

paste paper green historical design

Pastepaper. Inks are mixed with a flour-based paste to facilitate design manipulation.

Though the ink in early block printed papers is similar to paste paper colors, the method of application is essentially different. In a block printed sheet the ink is applied first to a carved block, after which the paper is either laid on the block and pressed, or the block is laid on the sheet and pressed. The papers we print in our shop are block printed, though we use more intense colored archival inks rather than the more washed out looking paste-based inks.

papillon papers italian Diamond block print

Papillon Papers Italian Diamond domino paper.

When one inspects the diamond or diaper patterned paper with a flower inside each diamond, it is evident that a paste type ink was used, as the design isn't completely crisp, and the color has a washed out look, giving the whole a rustic appearance. In fact, many of the early papers were quite unrefined, both in the execution of the carved block to the printing.

fragments 16th century

Fragments of a 16th Century domino paper.

The 16th Century fragments shown above illustrate this well. Printed in Venice about 1578, the stars are rough and not quite uniform. Later paper became more elaborate and fine, as in the example of the bird. This sheet (below), which is in a book in the collection of the Clements Library at the University of Michigan, was used as endpapers in a 1768 volume. The black was printed from a block, and the color applied by hand.

18th Century block printed and hand-colored paper in the collection of the Clements Library, University of Michigan.

18th Century block printed and hand-colored paper in the collection of the
Clements Library, University of Michigan.

Well, enough on the process. What about the design? Is this diamond pattern actually 18th Century Italian? We're calling it Italian because the example we referred to for inspiration for our design was from a book bound in 18th Century Italy. But actually we've only narrowed down the paper to being used in Italy. We don't have any hard evidence that the design is actually Italian. Who was the designer? We don't know. Who carved the block. We don't know. The paper might have been imported. The thing we do know, is that there are trends and design similarities from region to region and country to country, so we can guess that this paper was probably produced in Italy.

The other day I was looking through our 1828 copy of A Series of Ancient Baptismal Fonts, by Francis Simpson. It's an interesting book not only because of the fine engravings, but also because it shows a high level of artistry and seriousness that went into baptising people. As I was paging through, I was surprised to see an engraving of a baptismal font that was carved in stone in the middle of the Norman Period, according to the author, the details of the design being quite similar to the block printed paper.

The Norman baptismal font in St. Bartholomew's, Greens Norton, Northamptonshire, England. Engraved by R. Roberts.

The Norman baptismal font in St. Bartholomew's, Greens Norton,
Northamptonshire, England. Engraved by R. Roberts.

The font resides in St. Bartholomew's Church in Greens Norton, Northamptonshire. According to a report on the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland website, the font was produced around 1145, separating it by 600 years from time the domino paper mentioned above was produced.

A photo as the Norman font looks today.

A photo as the Norman font looks today.

 So now we have a design created in the period in which the Normans influenced art and ecclesiastical design. We know that cultures have borrowed from each other since the beginning of time. Not only in the context of friendly relations were there cultural and artistic exchanges, but also in the context of war and occupation. Besides political control, invasions bring other influences as well in the areas of language and art. When the Normans invaded England and won the Battle of Hastings in 1066, they brought with them a variety of artistic influences which is evident in ecclesiastical architecture and design.  The Normans were a culturally mixed group representing Viking and Frankish roots. They were also influenced by French and Italian cultures, as they had made controlling inroads in those countries as well. Knights that were present at the English invasion had previously engaged in Italy. Mostly men, these knights and other settlers married into the local culture, making the Normans quite a diverse lot!

Variations of this design are quite prevalent, and one can assume that it could easily be created by a variety of cultures in a variety of places and times independent of each other. The basis of the design is quite simple; a series of repeated diamonds enclosing an ornament or flower of some sort.  Examples can be found in the Medieval and Byzantine design.

diamond patterns varied

Various diamond pattern designs.

The two examples that are the subject of this writing, though, are so similar, that it's difficult not to suggest there might be more than a coincidental connection. The question of where this design originated may never be answered, but we do know that Italy is a solid contender for its origins, so we'll stick with calling our recreation of the design Italian Diamond.


  1. Piccarda Quilici, Carte Decorate Nella Legatoria del '700, Istituto Pligrafico E Zecca Dello Stato, Roma, 1989.
  2. Francis Simpson and R. Roberts, A Series of Ancient Baptismal Fonts, London, Septimus Prowett, 1828
  3. The Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland. "St Bartholomew, Greens Norton, Northamptonshire", by Katherine Morrison.
  4. "Sicilian Peoples: The Normans", by L. Mendola and V. Salerno, in Best of Sicily, 2005.
  5. Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, London, Day and Son, 1861.

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