The Arcanum

The most arresting image I’ve heard of relating to pottery occurred about 300 years ago in the dungeon of a pleasure palace just outside Dresden, Germany.  On hand was Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and Emperor of Poland.  During a party upstairs, he and a companion had come to see a nervous young alchemist (actually, Augustus’ prisoner) named Johann Böttger.

Years earlier, Augustus “hired” another man, Ehrenfried Von Tschirnhaus, to unlock the secrets of Chinese Porcelain, a trick nobody in Europe had as yet accomplished.  Von Tschirnhaus was a true proto-chemist, employing what would later be known as empirical laboratory practices.  But his efforts failed until Augustus was visited by (ie: kidnapped) a traveling alchemist named Böttger, who claimed to have discovered the Arcanum, the method of turning base metals to gold.  After repeated failures to replicate this feat, Böttger’s life hung in the balance.  He was paired with Von Tschirnhaus, who thought him somewhat of a gifted quack.  The combined efforts of these reluctant lab mates yielded not gold, but the first true European porcelain.  For Augustus, this would come to mean a very real form of white gold.

Anyway, on that fateful day, Augustus had descended to the dungeon where Böttger’s workshop and kilns were.  He wanted to see in person the miraculous process by which all those powders could be turned into porcelaneous gold.  At the very peak of the firing he demanded that the kiln door be removed so he could see the pots inside.  The Elector’s party friend tried to leave for fear of his life, but was held back by Augustus.  Böttger ordered his assistants to remove the bricks…


The Arcanum.  Janet Gleeson.  Warner Books/New York.  1998.

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One Response to “The Arcanum”

  1. A Greedy Cup « This Day in Pottery History Says:

    […] These were in no way limited to extravagances like the entire rooms of porcelain made for Augustus the Strong – or even ceramic items at all.  The 14th century Count Robert of Artois excelled in […]

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