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The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story
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The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story

3.68 of 5 stars 3.68  ·  rating details  ·  326 ratings  ·  55 reviews
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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Published September 26th 2009 by Grand Central Publishing (first published 1998)
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I will never again look at a piece of china or porcelain decoration without thinking of where it was made. This book gave a really interesting story of how alchemy and the search for the philosopher's stone (to make gold out of base metals) led to the first true porcelain manufacturing in Europe. "Arcana" means secret knowledge confined to a certain group of initiates; in this book it applies to the formula for successful porcelain-making. But it could just as well apply to the book itself - thi ...more
Joy Wilson
This is a fascinating book about the history of porcelain. I must admit, I bought it because of the title. Although I love history, I never would have a book about porcelain could be so interesting. It has all the elements of a good mystery with an interesting cast of characters that you will come to like or loathe depending on your preferences. You will probably be appalled at how the average workman was treated and abhor those in power. Although Gleeson doesn't go onto all the details of the w ...more
Alex Sarll
Not that I have any great interest in porcelain per se, but when you take into account that its birth in Europe was rooted in alchemy, and took in royal debauchery, industrial espionage and an awful lot of backstabbing along the way - well, that's another matter. Gleeson is no Neal Stephenson when it comes to the prose style, but this still reads somewhat like a side-story from the Baroque Cycle.
Fascinating, fascinating book on the development of fine porcelain and how it became the measure of wealth and an object of such obssession that rulers killed and fought for it and plotted to steal formulas. Didn't hurt that some of the developed formulas and the products were among items we saw displayed in various museums around the time I read this.
Mary Martin
Stupendous. Never look at glass the same way again.
Claudia Aroni
Quite often reality is more fascinating than fiction. Was Johann Frederick Bottger a charlatan? A trickster? A fraud? Nah! He discovered the secret of making porcelain, which after all was the next best thing to gold in Europe of his time.
I wrote some comments on this, but they have disappeared into the internet somewhere. Long story short, I was just at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore enjoying their ridiculously awesome collection of 18th century rococo porcelain in all its teals and pinks and golds and corals (ex.: and was pleasantly surprised to happen across this book, a forgotten interlibrary loan, on my return; it's neat when your experiences and what you happen to be reading se ...more
Robin (RBBR)
This is the story of how Porcelain came to be. Its been awhile since I read this and thanks to someonelse's review I was reminded that its discovery was a result of trying to find the secret for turning things into Gold and their is a connection to The Philosopher's Stone (I believe many people now associate it with J.K. Rowlings Hary Potter Series but it was around long before her books, According to Wikipedia "The philosopher's stone (Latin: lapis philosophorum) is a legendary alchemical subst ...more
Wow. Whoever thought that the history of porcelain-making in Europe would make almost a novel! Apparently the King of Poland in the early 1700's hired an alchemist -- actually, it's more like he emprisoned him -- to make gold. Instead, the alchemist figures out how to do something actually possible, how to make porcelain. The King goes nuts for it. All of Europe, or at least those in a position to spend money like royalty, goes for it. Factories are started. Corruption reigns. Industrial secrets ...more
A SDMB recommendation (thanks, selkie!), I requested this book via InterLibrary Loan. I got it on the 7th, started reading in the 19th & finished it earlier today.

In the Europe of the early 1700's, porcelain was as rare and as precious as gold and used to flaunt one's wealth, as well as for artistic purposes. The drive to discover the formula and start reaping the profits currently going back to China was strong - Gleeson compares it to the search for the philosopher's stone. In fact, it wa
Alex K.
Apr 07, 2007 Alex K. rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Someone who has to research EVERYTHING
Shelves: finished
This book was actually a very fun read despite its appearance. Even when I attempt to hand it to others to enjoy they look at it with ire and declare why the hell would they want to read a book on the history of porcelain?

The Author makes it a very enjoyable book. Having read one other I knew what to expect from her series of historical pieces. This book though is a pretty good look at how money really influences a lot in today and past society. It also shows how much we take for granted in soci
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 reci ...more
Patrick Ehrlicher
Really liked this book. Maybe it's because I happened to find it while living in Dresden. As soon as I finished I was able to visit the Meissen factory and hear the museum version of many of the books characters.
A surprisingly lively story about the development of European porcelain. And the title is not misleading. It was indeed a practicing alchemist who was sidetracked from his quest to change base metals into gold that ended up discovering the process for making porcelain. Probably this sounds boring to a lot of folks, so that's why I started with that bit about being surprisingly lively. While the history of porcelain proves more than interesting enough, the details of the sufferings, triumphs, and ...more
Alvin Mccoy
wow great read, no idea that the history of porcelain could be so interesting.
Kater Cheek
As a ceramicist with a fascination for history and chemistry, I found this a worthwhile read. Since it was an audiobook, it also made the ride shorter.

Even though this book is about the history of Germany's recreation of porcelain, it has many personal stories about the people involved, with violence, greed, lust, tragedy, and pride. My main complaint is that there were so many different names, and all so foreign, that I had trouble keeping them straight. This might have been because I was liste
Tatiana Pastukhova
Amazing, astonishing, stupendous. Would never guess that documentary-historical book can be so thrilling.
It is a story of european porcelain, born by genious mind of adventurer Alchemist. It will lead you through intrigues, conspiracies, wars...
I think anyone who've read this book would never hold a cup on his hand without feeling centures of history which stands behind it..
I can honestly say I never thought the history of European porcelain-making would be this interesting. Gleeson keeps the story moving along with just the right amount of detail, and the characters are all very well fleshed out but (understandably) never seem very relatable. A minor complaint, but this book really could have benefitted from extensive illustrations (it would have been great to actually see the artworks being described) ... I understand the BBC did a miniseries of this book, and I ...more
Reads like a thriller, industrial espionage, crazy meglomaniac leaders, art. I loved it.
Callie Hornbuckle
An interesting premise which ended up being a little dull in execution. I did enjoy the parallels between alchemy and the development of the porcelain making process.
The history of porcelain in Europe.
The story of how porcelain and porcelain manufacture came to Europe. It was a time of overindulgence, opulence, the divine right of Kings and intrigue. And I thought the relationship of my fellow art students in college was nasty. Not the fastest read and I wished all the way through there were many pictures of the porcelain to which I could refer, but it was quite interesting and surprising, or perhaps "eye opening" would be a better description.
Pamela Pickering
Well, I guess since I'm sending this one out via paperbackswap it qualifies as "abandoned". I was disappointed in this one especially after all the hype. "non-fiction that reads like a novel", maybe a boring novel. Frankly, I just couldn't get into it. I gave it the ole 100 page rule and went on to something else. Maybe it's the writer's style that just didn't hook me. I did learn a wee bit about the search for porcelain though.
Jo Christian
Very interesting not enough chemistry
If you like stories about alchemists and kings and spies and wars read this the story of the discovery of porcelain in the west and the attempt to keep its secret formula secret. Very well written full of characters. You leave with a sense of the wonder of the age and of the horrors of 18th century industrial production.
Beautifully written history: a young alchemist is imprisoned by Augustus the Strong, king of Saxony, and given a laboratory. The Alchemist, Johann Frederick Böttger, fails to transmute base metal into gold, but he does discover the secrets of making 'white gold', or porcelain, and still spends decades in jail......
Lynne Favreau
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.
A 'true' fairytale about the discovery of porcelain in Europe. History and alchemy. I liked it but it is a bit dry .... you have to get into the porcelain-magic mindset, maintain your sense of wonder, to get the most out of this one.
Oct 25, 2007 Rozza rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: history of porcelain
this was hard going for me, as the main charactor was always in and out of favour. I didn't symapthise with the charactor and unless you are very interested in the history of porcelain it is a book well left on the shelf.
It was written like a narrative so it made something that could have been boring, very fun and interesting. Surprising and little known story, a great read for history fans or anyone who just wants a good story.
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