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A Brief Introduction to Porcelain – Part 1

Posted on Mar 24, 2013 by in Articles | 0 comments

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Prized as exotic oriental treasure, a miraculous substance sought after by alchemists as eagerly as the Arcanum for gold or the philosopher’s stone. Porcelain has inspired desert caravans and epic, ocean voyages of trade and discovery The quest to possess porcelain, to unlock and control the secret of its manufacture, has bankrupt kingdoms and stigmatised the powerful and obsessive collectors who fell under its sway as pot heads

In the13th Century the leader of the marauding Mongol equestrian tide known as the Golden Hoard, that genocidal jockey of the steppes, Genghis Khan, may have done his hit for fast hot wok cooking but he is not particularly known for his cultural legacy One thing he did achieve was to drive his enemies before him, destroying national boundaries and the established spheres of power thus opening up the possibilities of trade and communication It was via the caravan trade routes opened under the Pax Mongolia that the flow of porcelain was established in the west The trade in porcelain followed along the lines established millennia earlier with the trade in silk, rhubarb and cinnamon But Xanadu was still an unseen place beyond the distant horizon and this strange commerce with remote China added to the appeal of Porcelain as an exotic rarity


To behold a piece of this porcelain was to experience a sense of contact over great distances. This still remains a source of its fascination. Porcelain’s vitrified durability and the way it resists bburial or submersion also provides a sense of contact over great time.

It was a monopoly of the east and nothing was known about how it was made. Marco Polo, writing in the late 13th century, may have referred to it with the name Porcelain (a reference to the pig like shape of certain cowrie shells) but he did little to clarify the secret of its production or to describe its origin Later accounts, like those of Jan Nieuhoff’s Embassy from the East India Co of the United Provinces to the Grand Tartar Cham, Emperor of China (trans 1665), whilst describing the process in more detail did little to demystify the secrets of its composition. That magisterial intellectual speculator and master of curious and arcane knowledge, Sir Thomas Brown, was to write in 1646 ‘we are not thoroughly resolved concerning porcelain or china dishes’.

Porcelain was a rare item; pieces were prized from the start. The early records of the royal inventories of mediaeval Europe carefully list and describe individual pieces of this exotica—often set in precious metal mounts like the ‘Beckford vase’—a Yuan dynasty white porcelain (yingqing) bottle with mounts (now lost) dateable to 13~31. Porcelain became synonymous with power and taste. Although available in the west it remained exceedingly rare—the preserve of princes and sultans until the early 15th century. The value placed on porcelain can he seen by the pieces depicted in Renaissance paintings, most famously in the Feast of the Gods by Giovanni Bellini, finished by Titian in 1514. ‘China dishes’ are mentioned in Shakespeare (Measure for Measure) as being things of value.


Regarded as an arcane substance, something miraculously between pottery and glass, the quest for the secret of its manufacture possessed the restless souls of enterprising alchemists and their gullible patrons. Success came to some.

There are records of early attempts to produce translucent proto porcelain in Venice, about 1470. An alchemist named Antuonio succeeded in making and firing in a furnace at San Simone, near Venice, ‘porcelane trasparenti’ described in a document dated 1470 as being as beautiful in glaze and colour as ‘the porcelain from barbarous countries’.

As is the way with alchemy ‘difficulties’ arose and the manufacture was not proceeded with until lS04, when a few samples were made, and others again in 1518 and lS19. No specimens of the early Venetian porcelain are now known, nor any pieces of the porcelain made at Ferrara for Duke Alphonso 11 about 1565-67 by Gulio da Urbino and mentioned with high praise by Vasari.

The earliest manufactory of porcelain from which specimens exist is that started in Florence for Francesco 1. De Medici, about the years 1575-8(). Other manufactories followed in France but it was in Germany that the great breakthrough finally came. Porcelain was created as a result of a breathtaking quest of discovery. And this resulted in unlocking the secrets of the composition of true porcelain, not a soft paste imitation or near substitute as in the earlier cases.