Thursday, October 23, 2008

738: What do you do with Red China?

The Arcanum : The Extraordinary True Story covers an interesting period in the Age of Reason. An "arcanum" is an alchemy term for a secret formula, and virtually all of Europe's finest minds were obsessed with discovering the ultimate arcanum: a philosopher's stone, which could transmute base metals to gold.

Augustus the Strong, King of Poland, was the patron of the alchemist Johann Bottger who had rashly promised he could create gold. Bottger became a prisoner for the rest of his life, seeking to deliver the philosopher's stone he had promised. He never succeeded, and, as the king's patience ran out, he frantically sought ways to save his reputation, and very likely his life. His salvation came when he met another alchemist who had been working on the problem of porcelain.

China held the secret of making porcelain, and all of Europe was obsessed with owning it. Augustus owned an immense collection, and was always buying more, at an incredible price. Accordingly, the kings were eager to discover the secret of making porcelain. The one who succeeded would have a monopoly on European porcelain, which would bring great prestige and, of course, wealth.

Bottger succeeded where all others had failed. At first, all he could create was a red stoneware that was beautiful and unique, but it was not truly porcelain. But Bottger persisted, literally for the rest of his life, and ultimately succeeded in independently recreating the formula the Chinese used to create the translucent white so valued by European nobility.

My one complaint is that the book could have used some illustrations or better yet color photos of some of the porcelain pieces being described. But a fun read, and another look at the staggering wealth and extravagance of the royalty of Europe.

No comments: