Sunday, 13 March 2016

The White Gold from Dresden - Johann Böttger, Alchemy and the Discovery of European Porcelain

13 March 1719, the alchemist and inventor Johann Friedrich Böttger, credited with discovering the secret of manufacturing European porcelain in 1708, died in Dresden at the age of 37.
“Alchemy was never at any time anything different from chemistry. It is utterly unjust to confound it, as is generally done, with the gold-making of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Among the alchemists there was always to be found a nucleus of genuine philosophers, who often deceived themselves in their theoretical views; whereas the gold-makers, properly so called, knowingly deceived both themselves and others. Alchemy was the pure science, gold-making included all those processes in which chemistry was technically applied. The achievements of such alchemists as Glauber, Böttger, and Kunkel, in this direction, may be boldly compared to the greatest discoveries of our century.” (Justus von Liebig)

Joseph Wright of Derby: "Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher's Stone"
Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 - 1797):
"The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher's Stone, Discovers Phosphorus,
and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the
Ancient Chymical Astrologers” (1771)

is an old cartoon showing the lord of the manor mustering his staff to announce the tax-based string of layoffs and the question: “Guess who of you is getting his marching orders?” and among the assembled domestics, the hawker and the alchemist look a bit awkward. And while hawkers still can make a rather decent living in employment of Arabian Peninsula-based establishments, the reputation and common notion about the general usefulness of alchemists went down the drain over the last 300 years. By and large something of a dishonour that correlates with the rise of the Age of Enlightenment and what we call modern science. However, for more than two thousand years, when borders between science, magic and theology were less definite than today and anything that might be beyond the PTE’s immediate scope was not dismissed as superstition out of hand, some groundbreaking physical, medical and chemical discoveries were made by Hermetic magicians and alchemists, up to those of Newton, who invested considerably more effort into alchemy than physics, at least in regards to the amount of writings he left behind. The highly metaphorical language and archetypical accounts, though, of alchemists’ and Hermetic mages’ discoveries through the ages usually sounds like complete mumbo jumbo to the uninitiated. A fact that drew the epoch-specific variants of snake oil salesmen like flies, since only a selected few were able to find them out from the start and one of the basic elements of alchemy, known to many by hearsay, was the so-called transmutation of elements, reduced to one very simple, but rather attractive feat: gold making. The game of the fraudsters among them was seen through, sooner or later, since there was usually no Rumpelstiltskin at hand to help them to spin straw into gold when push came to shove. And since there were ten Edward Kelleys and John Fausts to every Roger Bacon and Agrippa of Nettesheim, the whole profession suffered a bit, reputation-wise, already since the Middle Ages, even if gold-making was certainly not the only expressed purpose of the fabled philosopher’s stone. However, the notorious money shortage of Baroque counts found gold-makers in prince’s employment all across Europe during the years of decline of the art, in the vain hope that alchemy would consolidate their budgets. One of such cases was that of Johann Friedrich Böttger.

Böttger showing the Arcanum to King Augustus the Strong of Saxony, as imagined by the German artist Paul Kiessling (1836 - 1919)

The adept Lascaris was an early version of illustrious personages like Cagliostro and the Count of St Germain, travelling Europe in the guise of a Greek monk, allegedly to collect funds to ransom Christian slaves held in Turkish bondage, a rat-catcher full of charisma, good looks and learning. And in possession of a secret substance, a tincture that did not only cure all diseases but was able to transform base metals into gold. Not quite the philosopher’s stone, but the next best thing. Nobody knows why he bequeathed a portion of the Alltinktur to young Johann, trainee in Zorn’s apothecary shop in Berlin, but the sorcerer’s apprentice performed the transmutation for Master Zorn and three witnesses. Promptly, the notoriously broke ex-prince-elector and now King of Prussia Frederick I got wind of it and sent his minions to get hold of the gold maker. Johann fled from Berlin to Leipzig at the last minute and sought refuge with Frederick’s arch-rival Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. On his quest for quid as well, naturally, Augustus saw Böttger’s arrival in Leipzig as a golden opportunity, so to speak, shut him, in line with expectations, in a tower room like the miller’s daughter in Grimm’s fairy tale and forced him to make gold. Instead of straw and a spinning wheel, Böttger at least received a state-of-the-art laboratory in the fortress at Dresden and got down to the Great Work. What more was there to do since Lascaris’ Alltinktur was obviously given to him in homeopathic doses. Over the next five years and several attempts to abscond and having achieved virtually nothing in terms of transmutation, the poor sorcerer’s apprentice at least received support from fine minds of the the New Order, such as the mathematician and physicist Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus. And together, the two at least managed to produce “white gold”.

A porcelain vase made in Böttger's workshop before 1719

Like silk, the Chinese used porcelain since centuries but tried to keep the production of the valuable trade good a secret. While known in Europe since at least Marco Polo’s days, the Dutch East India Company had begun the large-scale import of the fragile Eastern ceramic wares in Europe about a hundred years before Böttger was imprisoned in Dresden. The stuff was extremely fashionable and high priced, hence the name “white gold” for china, the name porcelain became known in the English-speaking world. But the Westerners were at a loss about how to produce it until Tschirnhaus and Böttger struck their mother lode and Augustus ordered the two and their team to concentrate on perfecting the production of porcelain rather than pursuing esoteric follies any further. Tschirnhaus died in 1706 and even though it might be very well his fundamental research and experiments that led to the discovery of European porcelain, Böttger at least perfected its methods of productions. And at last he had something tangible to show, was set free by Augustus after confessing that he was unable to accomplish the Opus Magnum, the Great Work of alchemy. Böttger, because of his technical expertise rather than his credibility, was charged with the technical management of what was to become the famous Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur at Meissen in Saxony, took to drink and the project went to the wall until others sorted out the mess left behind by Böttger after his death in 1719. A year later, the crossed swords appeared for the first time on Meissen porcelain products as one of the very first European trademarks and the “white gold” from Saxony was considered at least as equal as the imports from the Far East. 

And more about Meissen porcelain on: