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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

“The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story”, by Janet Gleeson

336 pages, Little, Brown and Company, ISBN-13: 978-0446524995

Who ever thought a book about porcelain could be so engrossing? Ms. Gleeson has written an exciting (yes, exciting!) and fascinating tale. It is a combination of science and adventure with some industrial espionage thrown in. The biographical aspects are excellent also. You get a real feel for the personalities who are portrayed in this book: the profligate prince (Elector Augustus the Strong) who is desperate for a way to finance his out-of-control spending, so he pins his hopes on alchemy; the teenage alchemist (Johannn Bottger) who draws attention to himself with a magic trick that fools people into thinking he has found a way to create gold, and thereby gets himself locked away by Augustus until he can duplicate the feat. But Bottger was no charlatan. He really thought he could do it. The tension builds as Augustus invests lots of money in Bottger's enterprise but starts to get impatient when he doesn't see any results; poor Bottger even manages to escape for a short while because he is afraid of being executed for his failure. Eventually, he saves himself by coming up with a commercially viable formula for porcelain – but it wasn't easy!

The often exciting and always absorbing story of the European development of the formula for making fine porcelain and the growth of the Meissen works that led the way. The "Arcanum" usually refers to the age-old quest for a recipe for turning base metals into gold. Gleeson uses it appropriately here not only because porcelain became known as "white gold" in 18th-century Europe, but also because Bottger, had originally set out to make gold. Having rashly claimed – and "demonstrated” – that he could do so, Bottger was imprisoned in 1701 by the greedy Augustus II, king of Poland and elector of Saxony. Augustus, whose appetite for women and riches was legendary, held Bottger for decades; while his gold-making experiments failed repeatedly, he was given the task of discovering the ancient Chinese secret of making porcelain. Bottger eventually did make fine white porcelain from gray clay, prompting his "ironic testimony" above his laboratory door: "God…has made a potter from a gold-maker." Never granted his freedom, Bottger was made head of the king's porcelain factory at Meissen. Gleeson traces the history and development of porcelain artistry from there by following the careers of the mean-spirited Johann Gregor Herold, an artist whose inventive colors and patterns set the standard, and the sculptor Johann Joachim Kaendler, whose fine work in 1730s Dresden would bring about a bitter rivalry with Herold. The sublime results of their competitive work can still be viewed in the museums of Dresden and Meissen. Gleeson does a marvelous job of relating court intrigue, decadence, and chicanery; but her descriptions of 2,200-piece dinner services and the lavish banquets on tables decorated by porcelain finery, including an eight-foot-high model of the Piazza Navona with running rosewater, steal the show.

The story is one of greed, incredible artistry and innovation and all set against the political ambitions of a warlike and ever-changing European landscape. Gleeson's true skill is in the way she draws out the detail to people the landscape with lifelike and realistic detail without cluttering us with dull information or specious descriptions. She is immensely readable, bringing the story and the people alive.

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