Real alchemy: how the famous Meissen porcelain is created

Alchemists have been trying to get gold for centuries. Unsuccessfully. But one of them managed to create something more amazing

The editor of “Around the World” went to the birthplace of the first European porcelain, to Saxony, and saw how a miracle was born.

—This coffee service on a gold stand cost like a whole palace, —the voice of the guide echoes through the hall of the Dresden treasury “Green Vault”. —It was made by German craftsmen in 1698– 1701 by order of the Saxon elector Augustus the Strong. Take a closer look at the cups.

I come closer. Thin-walled white cups with elegant painting are really good. Only … at that time, porcelain in Europe was exclusively imported, it was brought from China. The cups are actually gold, painted with porcelain enamel, which then cost more than precious metals.

A few years later, the Saxons unraveled the secret of the manufacture of this material, and since then its production has become the pride of the region.

< p>40 Meissen porcelain bells chime on the clock tower in the Zwinger. In the Dresden Gallery, visitors admire the “Chocolate Girl” by Jean-Étienne Lyotard, the first known depiction of Meissen porcelain in painting. Tourists contemplate the Elbe from the “balcony of Europe” – Brühl's terrace, under which a workshop was located in casemates, where a method for producing hard porcelain was discovered. Subsequently, production was moved to nearby Meissen. The oldest porcelain manufactory in Europe still operates there.

Real alchemy: how the famous Meissen porcelain is made

Insurance baking

In the Meissen confectionery Zieger you can try the local specialty – fummel. They bake it only there, it is a patented trademark.

Fummel  is naturally a “pie with air”: inside a fragile shell sprinkled with powdered sugar, there is emptiness. The invention of this pastry is associated with porcelain. During the time of Augustus the Strong, a messenger ran between Meissen and the Elector's residence in Dresden. The courier had a weakness – good Meissen wine, and he could not resist the temptation in any roadside inn.

August the Strong commissioned the Meissen bakers to make the most fragile pastries possible, and since then, every time a messenger went to Dresden, he was handed a fummel with the elector's order to bring it intact. Afraid even to breathe on the treacherous bakery product, the courier went around the taverns, and the sovereign was calm about the delivery of porcelain dishes from Meissen.

From the café, the pavement steps lead up to Albrechtsburg Castle, towering in the middle of the city. One of the oldest fortresses in Germany looks impregnable. That is why Augustus the Strong placed there a manufactory for the production of the first porcelain in Europe, so that powerful walls would protect the secret of production. The inventor of the precious technology, the alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger, languished here for many years.

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Secret art

Böttger's life was like a picaresque novel. When an apothecary's apprentice became interested in alchemy, he hardly realized what a dangerous craft it was. The young seeker of the philosopher's stone did not succeed in obtaining gold from less noble metals, but managed to fool the Berlin public by simulating the transformation of silver coins into gold – in front of the philosopher Leibniz, by the way.

Rumors of a successful experience reached the Prussian king, he decided that the yellow metal in the household would not be superfluous, and sent his people in search of an alchemist.

Frightened, Böttger fled to his native Saxony. The king sent a request for extradition to Elector Augustus the Strong, but he decided to keep the valuable specialist for himself, and on a dark November night in 1701, Böttger was escorted to Dresden in the strictest secrecy.

The elector, apparently, believed in positive motivation, since at first he did not hide the alchemist in a casemate, but gave him money, books and a laboratory. But Böttger did not achieve success in the secret arts, he spent the funds and tried to escape two years later. In Austria, he was caught and put back & nbsp; – now under heavy guard.

“Boettger, look for the gold or I will hang you,” said Augustus the Strong, according to rumors. And he himself decided to adapt the captive to solve another mystery that was obsessed with all of Europe at that time: the recipe for making porcelain. his supervision. And here is a man who spent his whole life trying to find the secret of obtaining gold from lead, as a result, he discovered a material that was valued more than yellow metal.

In 1709, the alchemist reported to the elector that he had succeeded in producing fine, resonant porcelain, not inferior to Chinese in whiteness and elegance. Böttger's freedom was returned only in 1714, when his health was destroyed by chemical experiments and alcohol. He died in 1719, at the age of 37.

Real alchemy: how the famous Meissen porcelain is made

The impregnable fortress did not save the enterprise from industrial espionage: one of the employees, Samuel Stölzel, was lured to Vienna for a lot of money in the year of Böttger's death. Soon the agents of August the Strong found the fugitive and talked to him so convincingly that Stölzel destroyed his workshop, returned to Albrechtsburg, and even brought with him an exceptionally gifted artist. However, the secret of porcelain production ceased to be such, and manufactories began to appear throughout Europe.

In 1864, the Meissen manufactory was moved from Albrechtsburg to new factory buildings in the southwestern part of the city, where it is located today.

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The Four Elements

Alchemists and natural philosophers believed that everything in the world consists of four elements – earth, water, air and fire – and understanding the laws of their combination gives the key to the magical secrets of nature.

Saxon masters in practice apply the interaction of the four elements. Earth, or rather white clay, kaolin, the basis of porcelain dough, is mined in a quarry located 12 kilometers from Meissen, in Seilitz. This is the smallest mine in Germany; two people work there, who send about 200 tons of raw materials per year to production.

At the manufactory, kaolin is cleaned of impurities and diluted in water, “kaolin milk” is kneaded for weeks in large vats. The precipitate is combined in strict proportions with crushed quartz and feldspar until a homogeneous mass is obtained – porcelain dough.

Sculptors dilute this dough with water to give it plasticity. Cups, vases, plates are made by placing the mass in open plaster molds fixed in the center of the potter's wheel; sculpture – laying the dough in closed forms.

– Here inside, – the master of the molding shop of the Meissen manufactory holds two plaster bars fastened with an elastic band, – the tail of a lion dries. Part of the tail, actually. To assemble a whole lion, you will need 70 parts.

The air helps dry the parts in the molds. Then the master removes them, polishes the irregularities and assembles the sculpture together, gluing the parts together with porcelain dough diluted with water. In the finishing shop, if necessary, add small elements. So, branded Meissen “viburnum flowers”, covering the product with a continuous carpet, are made using a porcelain stamp with the corresponding relief; roses and chrysanthemums are harvested by hand one petal at a time.

Real alchemy: how the famous Meissen porcelain is created

Finally, fire comes into play. The first firing – “biscuit”, without glaze, at a temperature of about 950 ° C, the second already with glaze – at a temperature of about 1400 ° C. After firing, the product decreases in size by one sixth, and if the recipe is even slightly violated – cracks are inevitable.

In the spacious room where the ovens are located, it is hot, despite the air conditioners. Glaze is applied here in different ways: plates are dipped into a vat of liquid, small figurines are sprayed with a spray bottle, large sculptures are poured in a separate cabin. The product is painted either before glazing, or already at the next stage.

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Transmutation colors

Most of the employees of the manufactory are artists. They work in several shops. In one of the rooms they are engaged in overglaze painting of dishes. 14 people sit at separate tables with partitions: someone draws dragons in the Chinese style, someone draws realistic bouquets.

– We use oil paints, – one of the craftswomen explains. – We order powders in the laboratory, and then mix them with turpentine to the desired consistency.

“If the porcelain recipe could not be kept secret,” adds another, “then the composition of the paints is still our big secret. The main pigments were developed in the 18th century. At first there were ten shades, then twenty, and today there are already about ten thousand of them.

The artist uses a pencil to redraw a pattern from a sample onto a plate drawn into sectors. The craftswoman at the next table covers the snow-white glazed surface with nondescript brown roses. In front of her is the same saucer, only the flowers are purple. This “imperial” shade of paint will acquire after the next firing. Then the last stage – gilding is applied.

Real alchemy: how the famous Meissen porcelain is made

Real alchemy: how the famous Meissen porcelain is made

Real alchemy: how the famous Meissen porcelain is made

Real alchemy: how the famous Meissen porcelain is created

But the most powerful “magic” & nbsp; is underglaze painting. According to the ancient method, the artist puts an aluminum circle on the plate, on which one of the most popular ornaments, the so-called Meissen onions, Zwiebelmuster.

These are stylized peaches or pomegranates of oriental patterns, which the Saxon masters of the 18th century tried to repeat. It turned out more like onion heads, but the motif became the most recognizable ornament of Meissen ceramics.

The template is sprinkled with coal dust – this is how the pattern is transferred to the surface. The master makes a drawing with cobalt paint of a dirty gray-green hue. With it, crossed swords from the coat of arms of the Saxon electors are applied to all products – a sign of the Meissen manufactory. And then the ornament is hidden under an opaque layer of glaze, and the plate is sent to the oven. After firing, the design will show through – and it will be the most famous Meissen color, deep dark blue.

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Immortal Template

The museum at the manufactory presents the entire history of Meissen porcelain in figurines, sets, vases, table clocks; there is even an organ with porcelain pipes made in 2000. Some things are still remembered by Augustus the Strong, but they cannot be distinguished from later copies made in the same forms. Here, for example, dishes with an exquisite relief surface from the “Swan Service” for 100 people, created in the 18th century and consisting of more than 2200 items.

– In this case, exactly copies, – dispels my doubts guide Ilona Maluke. – Almost all the originals from this set were lost in the middle of the 20th century, after the war.

Real alchemy: how the famous Meissen porcelain is created

But in the original, numerous plaster molds have been preserved, from Böttger's times to the present day, & nbsp; – more than 700 thousand of them are in the huge archive of the manufactory. So the Meissenians seem to have subjugated time itself: almost any piece of porcelain can be reproduced over and over again. Here, in the souvenir department, copies of the dishes of Augustus the Strong and his courtiers are sold.

I pensively turn in my hands a coffee cup from the Swan Service with embossed birds, only minimalistically white, without painting or gilding. 99 euros is a solid price.

“And from year to year, prices are getting higher,” says Ilona, ​​“but demand does not decrease. People are attracted by the name, the history, tradition, continuity associated with it. The best craftsmen have always been hired for production, and this is handmade of the highest quality, which is still strictly controlled at all stages. By the way, do you see shelves with discounted goods? Here you can buy items that have not passed the control due to the smallest differences from the standard, and no one but the manufacturer will be able to notice this difference.

I predictably do not see the differences, so I take a cup and saucer for a third cheaper.

Real alchemy: how the famous Meissen porcelain is made

The north wall of the Stahlhof Stables Yard in Dresden is adorned with the world's largest tiled panel made of Meissen porcelain, the “Procession of the Princes” made in 1907.

About 25,000 painted tiles make up an image of more than 950 m². In February 1945, during the bombardment, a terrible fire broke out. The walls of Stahlhof stood, but the “Procession of Princes” turned into a sooty black plane. They thought that the masterpiece was lost, but when the surface was cleaned, it turned out that the panel was practically unscathed, it was only necessary to replace a few tiles.

One of the properties of the philosopher's stone, which all alchemists dreamed of receiving, was considered to be that it bestows immortality. It looks like the Meissen craftsmen are practicing some kind of magic for their porcelain. However, in the words of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Real alchemy: how the famous Meissen porcelain is made

LANDSCAPE
Meissen, Saxony, Germany

Meissen Square 30.9 km²
Population 28,000 people
Population density 906 people/km²

Area Germany 357,578 km² (62 th place in the world)
Population 83,700,000 people (19th place)
Population density 232 people/km²

ATTRACTIONSAlbrechtsburg Castle, Meissen Cathedral (XIII–XV centuries), market square with the oldest city hall in Saxony (XV century), the oldest church of St. Aphra in the city (XIII century), Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche) with a porcelain belfry (XV– XVI c.).
TRADITIONAL DISHES fummel; Meissen ham soaked in wine; beef roll.
TRADITIONAL DRINKS golden Meissen riesling, ice wine.
SOUVENIRS Meissen porcelain, snow globes.

< p>DISTANCE from Moscow to Meissen ~ 1670 km (from 2 hours 45 minutes in flight to Dresden, from there 25 km to Meissen by electric train)
TIME behind Moscow for an hour in summer, for two hours in winter
VISA Schengen
CURRENCY euro

Photo: Konstantin Chalabov, DPA/LEGION-MEDIA

Material published in the magazine “Vokrug sveta” No. 11, November 2019, partially updated in September 2022

Natalia Ovchinnikova

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