The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story Of The Invention Of European Porcelain
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The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story Of The Invention Of European Porcelain

3.67 of 5 stars 3.67  ·  rating details  ·  259 ratings  ·  46 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.
Published April 2nd 1998 by Bantam Press (first published January 1st 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
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.
Mary Martin
Stupendous. Never look at glass the same way again.
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...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 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...more
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
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
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...more
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the history of porcelain in the West which resulted in Meissen art porcelain . It's a real page turner (believe it or not!) replete with mystery, suspense, industrial espionage, poisonings, etc.
Dawn Paris
An interesting look at 1700s Europe through the political and social elements surrounding the search for the formula for porcelain. I might have liked a little more of the science aspect, though.
This is truly an extraordinary story. It has everything, greed, suspense, rags to riches and it is all true. The best way to learn history, even if you are not a fan of Meissen Porcelain.
Jill Kandel
1700, a nineteen year old alchemist, a greedy king, and a quest to make gold which leads to a discovery: porcelain! I love intriguing combination, science, and story.
An intriguing book. It tells the story of Meissen porcelain and its creator. This is the sort of "niche social history" story that I really dig.
I didn't realise the history of porcelain was so dramatic, and this book made a subject I didn't have much interest in interesting.
Bobbie Darbyshire
Pedestrian writing. Repetitious story. Learned a few interesting facts from the blurb and introduction, but the book itself was very dull.
Ben Francisco
Fascinating history of how porcelain was created in medieval Europe at a time when all people were looking for the "philospher's stone".
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