Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer White Gold

By Leonard Gill

MARCH 8, 1999: 

The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story By Janet Gleeson, Warner Books, 315 pp., $23

Three hundred years ago, uncovering the formula that would turn base metal into gold wasn’t the only business of alchemists. A seemingly equally intractable problem was converting simple clay into the highly prized ceramic known as porcelain, the same extraordinarily fine, translucent, fragile yet durable porcelain the Chinese had been producing since the 6th century and charging Europeans an arm and a leg for since Marco Polo first reported on it in the 13th. By the beginning of the 18th century, porcelain-hungry Europeans had had it with the Far East’s monopoly, and the search for the secret formula — the arcanum — was on.

But as Janet Gleeson explains in The Arcanum, gold was still a lot more precious than porcelain, and gold is exactly what the military-minded Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, needed from alchemy but exactly what alchemy couldn’t give him. What he got instead in 1702 was a good alchemist and a better chemist in the 19-year-old Johann Frederick Böttger. It was Böttger, held captive by Augustus, first in Dresden, then in Meissen, and working under intolerable conditions in a dungeon laboratory, who knew to turn his attention from gold to porcelain and who knew it might in the bargain save his neck. In 1708, Böttger succeeded at both: He came up with the right clay, the right admixture of feldspar, fired at the right temperature, and he lived to the ripe old age of 37, consumptive, alcoholic, epileptic, and insane.

Augustus, meanwhile, had, in porcelain, struck it big time. The hard part now was keeping the formula secret from envious kings and untrustworthy craftsmen. Never, until you read The Arcanum, could you imagine so much tempest in so little as a teacup, and space does not allow me to even begin to tell it: the spying, the backstabbing, the skulduggery, the armies on the march, the father-daughter incest, the rooms fashioned wholly in porcelain, the hardship on workers, the play-acting of aristocrats, the whole of Central Europe in geopolitical chaos, and sandwiched in the middle of all this, somehow the supreme craftsmanship of sculptors and painters.

The author, a former staff member at Sotheby’s, a former art and antiques correspondent for House & Garden, and recent editor of Miller’s Collecting Pottery and Porcelain, has taken a hidden, complex history in The Arcanum, described it efficiently, and with the right touches of color, brought it beautifully back alive.

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