Locked Down in History — Beauty from Harsh Surroundings
A man is sentenced to prison for an indeterminate time, condemned to stay there until he can produce what he has promised, gold from lead. Even after four years in prison, with absolutely no results, he is promising to produce quantities such as two tons within eight days. This situation wouldn’t seem to offer an intriguing plot, but Janet Gleeson has turned it into a book that reads like a spy thriller, The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story.
In 1701, at the same time the French government was experimenting with modern economic ideas, it was still a common belief that base metal could be changed into gold. Even educated people and royalty held this belief and searched for the formula or “arcanum”.
A young man in Berlin, Johann Frederick Böttger, demonstrated turning silver into gold to some of his friends. To this day no one knows exactly what he did, but they found it convincing and spread the word. He may have been hoping to arrange for support while he continued his research, but unfortunately for him, the King of Prussia learned of this transmutation and summoned him.
Knowing that he could be tortured and even killed once his deception was uncovered, Böttger escaped to Saxony. But that was no solution, as Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony, decided to keep Böttger for himself, imprisoned until he revealed the secret of the arcanum.
Just as with Louis XIV of France, Augustus loved his wars and his luxuries and he was impoverishing his kingdom. As the years passed with no miraculous gold popping into existence to bail him out, one of Augustus’ advisors suggested that at least Böttger could be set to a new problem — creating a substitute for the beautiful, expensive Chinese porcelains that Augustus collected. Porcelain was so rare and so sought after that it was called “white gold.” If Böttger could discover how to create it, the sale of porcelain could bring money into the kingdom — or at the very least, keep Augustus from spending so much money outside of his kingdom.
Augustus agreed, and in 1705, had Böttger transferred to another prison, the Albrechtsburg fortress in Meissen.
So now you know the rest of the story. The secrets of porcelain manufacture were indeed discovered after many years, and incredibly fancy things were produced. (And eventually Sèvres came along, and Limoges, and as our ancestors came up in the world, they collected it too, and now a lot of us think it’s more trouble than its worth because it won’t go in the dishwasher, and so I get it for 50 cents a plate at the thrift store. )
Böttger ended up being imprisoned for twelve and a half years, sometimes being coaxed with comfort, sometimes being punished with loss of privileges. Afraid that another ruler might capture him and the secret formula, Augustus would move Böttger to different fortresses. One move resulted in him being denied even books, paper and ink for a year.
Often his staff was imprisoned with him. As they struggled to create true porcelain, they had to experiment with different kinds of kilns. Gleeson captures the atmosphere in telling details:
The vaulted chambers of the laboratories were poorly ventilated by small windows — as a defense in medieval times against enemy incursions — and despite the chimneys into which the furnaces were built the heat in the room became so stiflingly intense that the men’s hair was scorched. Shoes offered scant protection against the searingly hot stone floor that blistered their feet…as the furnace continued to rage the very fabric of the vault that contained it threatened to collapse. Lumps of rendering and plaster turned silver in the heat and began falling from the ceilings in large molten fragments. Stones loosened from the rendering exploded like bullets into the vault and littered the floor. Smoke from the furnace mingled with the moisture-laden atmosphere, filling the rooms with noxious fumes. It was barely possible to breathe and the sweat pouring from the brows of the men congealed the soot and dirt staining their faces and fell into their eyes, partially blinding them. (pp. 74, 74)
Gleeson masterfully weaves into the account the backstories of the rulers and scientists, the history and science of porcelain, and even the procedures for making and enameling it. Other than the picture of a porcelain piece on the cover, there are no illustrations in this book, but her descriptions plant images in your mind. Speaking of the designer Kändler, who came after Böttger, she writes:
Nothing was too difficult or too bizarre to be made from porcelain. He shattered the conventions governing the design of tableware and decorative objects, replacing them with a repertoire of incredible novelty. On a visit to the factory showroom you might have seen teapots modeled in the form of monkeys or exotically plumed birds; sugar sifters cast as women astride cockerels; chandeliers like branched trees festooned with exotic birds as richly colored as tropical fruits. (p. 233)
Unlike the previous two books I have written about here lately, I would fully recommend this book to anyone. I thought Forbidden Fashion was too repetitive, and The Queen’s Embroiderer went too deep, in too many directions at once for me to follow easily; but I re-read The Arcanum just to enjoy the colorful word choice and sentence structure.
And in researching this post, I have learned that Gleeson has written a lot of other books, including one on John Law, the Scottish economist who figured so heavily in The Queen’s Embroiderer. I can’t wait to read that and her other books!
Throughout this crazy year, I have been enjoying the YouTube videos from The Frick Museum in New York, and a recent release complements this book:
It was wonderful to see illustrations of the people and objects involved!
Thank you for this wonderful review.
You are welcome — I always think of your post of helpful hints of review-writing when I write reviews! 🙂
I’m thankful for books, too, especially during quarantine.
Yes, some of the ones I have read lately have taken me into another world, and then these three I read about lockdowns reminded me it could always be worse! 🙂
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What a fascinating story! Thank you for sharing.
You are welcome! It was such a well-written book, I was happy to spread the word. 🙂
now that I spend my life playing with silver, I wonder if the alchemy of silver into gold was faked by patination – I use liver of sulphur (and sulphur has always been about) and the initial colour it turns the silver is golden. It stays like that if rinsed and chilled at the right moment. I can’t share a photo with you here, so please forgive me placing a link to my shop (do delete it) but I thought you might be interested to see the colour LoS gives at it’s first pass – this golden colour here https://www.dawngilldesigns.com/product-page/sterling-silver-anticlastic-bangle-patinated
No, I am going to leave the link up because the bangles are beautiful and I think your comment certainly adds to the post! 🙂
In the book they had quotes from Bottger’s landlord, who was one of the ones at his demonstration, and he said they tested the gold and it was gold all the way through, so the author thought Bottger could have palmed some gold and slipped it into his crucible unseen, but to me that seems like a very expensive illusion! But I bet the method you are talking about was certainly used by other people who were also trying the same scheme. A few other famous ones are mentioned in the book and they often came to very bad ends, so I am astounded that anyone would have the nerve to try these tricks.
Thank you so much for sharing this information!
that’s very kind, thank you – I’d have posted just the pic if I could’ve! There are heaps of tricks / techniques one can do to give the illusion of gold, but this is the simplest and cheapest. It was a really interesting post, thank you.
That sounds like a fascinating read. I love the candelabrum. It’s sad that so many innovations seem to have been borne out of terrible suffering. I hope the satisfaction of discovering how to make porcelain and the beauty of the finished pieces brought some joy to Böttger and his fellow prisoners. You were very lucky to find those beautiful pieces in a thrift store. They would be much more expensive here.
Yes, I think she is an amazing author to make a tale of such awful treatment something that is still readable! I could never finish The Count of Monte Cristo because of the parts about them tunneling through the prison, I am too claustrophobic to even read about it! 🙂
The porcelain I showed though is all official stuff that is in museums; I just get beautiful Havilland Limoges plates everywhere. They are much more recent, probably things our grandmothers got as wedding gifts, but things people don’t want now because they somehow think they will be too much trouble.