738: The Arcanum by Janet Gleeson

by Gerard

738.092243214: Gleeson, Janet. The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story. New York: Warner Books, 1998. 301 pp. ISBN 0-446-67484-2.

Dewey Construction:

  • 700: The arts
  • 730: Plastics arts; sculpture
  • 738: Ceramic arts
  • +0922: Collected persons treatment
  • +43: Central Europe
  • +2: Saxony and Thuringia
  • +14: Dresden District

Once trade relations were in earnest between Central Europe and the Far East by the seventeenth century, new and wondrous artifacts made their way to Europe. Figurines, paintings, and other objets d’art were prized by collectors and kings. The most highly sought of those collectibles was Chinese porcelain. Until the early 1700s, no craftsman in Europe could duplicate the both the translucent wonder and alarming hardness of true porcelain. No one, that is, until an alchemist named Johann Frederich Boettger came along.

Janet Gleeson’s The Arcanum details the history of the first European porcelain factory. When Augustus II, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, caught wind of young Boettger purporting to be able to transmute lead into gold, he had him rounded up and placed in “protective custody” so that he could serve the Saxon state by supplying infinite money for its wars and rulers. As with 100% of all alchemists, he failed in this pursuit, but he did meet Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus. Tschirnhaus was a chemist trying to come up with a formulation for porcelain that could be made locally and sold to profit Saxony.

Boettger, a chemist by training, worked with Tschirnhaus and together they hit upon the right formulation of kaolin clay and alabaster (later feldspar) that would create the white gold that Augustus was looking for. Augustus provided the means and the facility to create European porcelain on a grand scale in Meissen (where porcelain is still made to this day). Being the first to achieve the impossible, the manufacturing plant was a hotbed of intrigue, Machiavellian maneuvering, and fraud. But, the factory proved so profitable that Frederick II of Prussia tried to take over the territory to gain, among other riches, the secrets of making porcelain.

Gleeson’s history is very readable and relatively digression-free. The only detraction is the lack of illustrations. I’m big on pictures in art books. If you’re going to talk about the grandeur and luster of different kinds of porcelain, it would be nice to actually see the pieces themselves. Other than that, I enjoyed it.