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The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story by…

The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story (1998)

by Janet Gleeson

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4831735,317 (3.76)15
An extraordinary episode in cultural & scientific history comes to life in the fascinating story of a genius, greed, & exquisite beauty revealed by the obsessive pursuit of the secret formula for one of the most precious commodities of eighteenth century European royalty-fine porcelain.



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Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
The history of porcelain in Europe. ( )
  yamiyoghurt | Jan 29, 2018 |
I was completely fascinated by the story. I read it in 2005 so I'll need to reread it to write a proper review but it's a testament to how good it was that it is one of the first book I think of when someone ask me what I like to read.
( )
  LynneMF | Aug 20, 2017 |
Did you know that for centuries, only Asian countries knew the secret of creating porcelain? Neither did I, until I happened upon Janet Gleeson’s The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story. Gleeson’s book tells the story of a self-proclaimed alchemist who convinced a king that he could turn lead into gold. Unable to duplicate his initial “success,” the alchemist was imprisoned until such time as he made good on his claims. He was never able to turn lead into gold, but he did stumble upon the recipe for porcelain. The kicker is that he never really got out of prison—although happy to profit from the sudden fashion for porcelain, the king never forgave the erstwhile alchemist for not turning lead into gold. ( )
  Mrs_McGreevy | Nov 17, 2016 |
Two non-fiction books in a row and both of them dealing with subjects I knew nothing about; this one about the creation of European Porcelain in Meissen and Dresden. I enjoyed this book and found the subject fascinating, but I was never really drawn into the book or engaged with its characters. ( )
  johnwbeha | Nov 18, 2015 |
Who would have thought that a book about the history of European porcelain manufacturing would be a fun read? But that’s exactly what The Arcanum is and it makes this history read like a novel. It is the story of a Johann Frederick Bottger, a precocious young 18th century chemist who in a misguided attempt to prove his worthiness to a King (August the Strong of Saxony and Poland) promises that he has the ability to create gold out of ordinary metals. The King orders Bottger locked away in a castle for years so that he can provide this creation for the King’s benefit.

Eventually, in desperation for some freedom and to avoid execution for fraudulently representing himself, Bottger instead comes up with the formula (the Arcanum) for making hard porcelain in the manner of the Chinese. Chinese porcelain had been highly prized in Europe for its delicacy, beauty and durability. The Europeans could not replicate porcelain until Bottger figured out how. Once he did, August the Strong opened a factory in Meissen, Germany (where it still remains) which produced highly sought beautiful and delicate objects. The book details the intrigues in the factory as well as the plots and conspiracies throughout Europe in efforts to steal the porcelain formula and compete with August’s monopoly on this lucrative, highly desired and valuable luxury.

It really is a fascinating and enjoyable story and Gleeson manages to provide historical and political background as well as a real taste of life in the 1700’s in Europe. If I have one complaint about the book, it is that there are no photos of Meissen porcelain. Given that Meissen established the precedent for this decorative art in Europe, it seems that the inclusion of photos of the porcelain would have added a lot to the book and the lack of photography is a huge omission. Simply put, seeing examples of Meissen would have visually answered the question of what the fuss was all about 300 years ago. ( )
  plt | Jul 18, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
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