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La riscoperta della porcellana di Meissen

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L’articolo di Rohald Hoffmann, intitolato «Meissen Chymistry: The Alchemical Pursuits of Augustus the Strong» e pubblicato su American Scientist, esplora l’affascinante mondo dell’alchimia e illustra le ricerche di Augusto il Forte, duca e principe elettore di Sassonia con il nome di Federico Augusto I e re di Polonia con il nome di Augusto II di Polonia.

La porcellana cinese era conosciuta e molto apprezzata in Occidente, ma in Europa si era provato a emulare senza successo questa tecnica di lavorazione per centinaia di anni. La porcellana fu infine prodotta in Sassonia nel 1709, in un riuscito esempio di ricerca chimica applicata grazie alla “collaborazione” di tre uomini di carattere sorprendentemente diverso.

The first of the three men whose talents joined in the development of European porcelain was Augustus the Strong, the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, who was besotted by Chinese porcelain. Serving him was Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus, an aristocratic natural philosopher and polymath with a practical bent. He wrote on mathematics, but also learned how to make soft-paste porcelain in France and built giant burning-lenses that reached the highest temperatures yet observed. The third man was Johann Friedrich Böttger, a young alchemist in the classical vein, who believed in the central philosophy of alchemy (and chemistry), that of essential transformation. He was also a very good, practiced chemist, familiar with metallurgical techniques and the arts of pharmacy.

Augusto il Forte fu coinvolto in un progetto alchemico noto come «Meissen Chymistry». Questo ambizioso lavoro di ricerca ebbe luogo nei laboratori segreti del suo castello di Meissen, in Germania, protetti da misure di sicurezza rigorose. Il progetto consisteva nella ricerca di metodi per trasformare metalli in oro e trovare l’elisir dell’immortalità. Nonostante gli sforzi, Augusto non riuscì mai a trasformare il piombo in oro o a scoprire l’elisir dell’immortalità. Tuttavia, il suo coinvolgimento nell’alchimia ha contribuito a creare miti e leggende intorno alla sua figura.

Tschirnhaus convinced Augustus to put Böttger to the task of making “white gold,” or porcelain. It took only two years to do so, when so many other attempts had failed, because of a felicitous conjunction of materials and people. First, there were nearby deposits of kaolin that were known to Tschirnhaus. This Saxonian clay lacked the traces of potash mica that lent plasticity to its Chinese counterpart and allowed Eastern potters to experiment with more curvaceous forms. Still, this clay and no other was the essence of porcelain. Next, Böttger could build kilns, in them “the gehennical fire,” that could reach the requisite high temperatures. And finally, talent to decorate the porcelain existed among the artists at Augustus’s Dresden court.

La storia di questa riscoperta della porcellana, la storia di Böttger, è descritta nel libro di Janet Gleeson del 1998, Arcanum.

Joe Schwarcz sulle pagine di Montreal Gazette racconta la storia di Bottger e dell’oro bianco:

Stories of Bottger’s exploits reached the ears of Augustus the Strong, ruler of Saxony and King of Poland. Hungry for gold, Augustus had Bottger arrested and locked away with an array of books and alchemical apparatus, tasked with producing the precious metal. After years of failure, and with the threat of execution hanging over his head, Bottger hatched a scheme to save his neck. He admitted that his search for the philosopher’s stone had been futile but professed that in the process he had discovered another elusive secret, that of making “white gold,” as porcelain was known in those days. This intrigued Augustus, who had become infatuated with the substance, the discovery of which traces back to the eighth century T’ang Dynasty in China. (Hence the term “china” to describe porcelain.) Since all European attempts to reproduce the Chinese process had been unsuccessful, the king decided to give Bottger a shot at showing what he could do. To ensure that he was not being duped, Augustus assigned Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, the leading Saxon scientist at the time, to supervise the project.

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