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A brief history of origami

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A brief history of origami
by Raffaele Leonardi

Versione italiana

Origami is a word of Japanese origins which stands for : "folding paper" or "folded paper", according to the context in which it is used, and it is a technique through which one can make several figures and shapes by folding one or more paper sheets.

Probably, the history of Origami started with the invention of paper itself, which has been officially stated in 105 A.D. in China. Among its uncountable gifts, this new material could be folded many times without being torn "holding its shape".
Origami might have been born in that time, but we cannot be absolutely certain, therefore we have to wait until 610 A.D., when a Buddhist monk brought to Japan the technique of paper fabrication.

In spite of its rapid diffusion, paper remained for years a rare and precious material, used for religious ceremonies or on other important occasions. Paper was not used to make models as we intend today but rather to create abstract figures with a symbolic and ritual meaning, following strict formal rules known only to a small number of specialists.

One of the oldest examples goes back to the Heian period (794 - 1185 A.D.): a folded paper sheet was used to cover the sake bottle on the altar as a favourable offer during religious ceremonies.
In the same period we have stylized models which represent a male butterfly (o-cho) and a female butterfly (me-cho). They were hang to the neck of two empty sake bottles for a peculiar wishing rite during the Shinto ceremonial weddings, a custom which is followed even nowadays.

The most important figure in the Kamakura period (1185 - 1333 A.D.) is the noshi. This is short for noshi-awabi, a sun dried stripe of marine mollusc meat.

Its original meaning is unknown, probably the offer of this type of food, so highly regarded in Medieval Japan, was considered as a wish of good luck. It is to be noticed that noshi, at variance from other traditional models, is obtained by a simple fold, without any cut. Later on, this tendency shall become predominant in the so called "modern origami".
The folding techniques for the various figures were handed down orally, generation by generation, until the beginning of the XVIII century, when the first books with folding instructions are supposed to have appeared. The repertory, anyway, was not various. Basically they were published models taken from the oral tradition (such as: crane, frogs, stars, boxes, small dolls, decorations..); the folding schemes were reported without any innovation.
Folds, relatively simple and easy to be memorised, allowed the realisation of stylized and basic topics.

Between the XVI and the XVII century, the technique of folding paper was known in Europe too, especially in Spain and in Italy. And it was in Italy that, in those years, a peculiar way to fold table napkins in order to embellish the Renaissant tables was developed.
Folded paper figures were also used by jugglers to amaze the simple-minded audiences of that times. Typical of 1700 is the routine known as "the magic fan": a wide paper stripe whose sides are both pleated like an accordion, which, skilfully handled, gave origin almost in a magical way to the most various shapes.

From the XIX century, origami has developed also in a creative sense, elaborating more modern shapes and raising the most simple fundamental rules of the classical models to extreme levels of refinement and complexity.
Great Japanese masters, but also Western origamists, turn origami into a form of art in order to give a new dimension to their creativity.
Thanks to the numerous International Associations which get together passionates from all countries, the paper folding ability is gradually obtaining a greater diffusion in the world.

In Italy the Centro Diffusione Origami has been active since 1978 with the purpose of promoting the knowledge and the practice of this art, recognising in itself an educative useful tool to increase aesthetic sense, precision and manual ability.

Written by Raffaele Leonardi, 1997.
Translated in english by Silvia Biondi, 1997.

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