The history of Porcelain in Europe


Porcelain, as we know it today, is a pure white, hard, translucent, tough and compact ceramic that was popular in China during the T’ang dynasty (618-907).

According to tradition, the first news of the material in Europe came from Marco Polo in 1295, in the form of a small white vase, which now forms part of the San Marco heritage. The word “porcelain” appeared for the first time in “The Travels of Marco Polo” (“Milione”); it is theorised that the name derived from some small shells used in the Far East as currency, whose shape, colour and roundness resembled a ‘porcellino’(piglet). As the shell also has the same sheen as porcelain, this etymology seems very plausible.

From the beginning of the 1300s to the end of the 1400s, porcelain was considered in Europe to be one of the most precious products coming out of the Orient. Its use became one of the prerogatives of Royalty,the high prelate and the large feudal lords, who a idly purchased it from the Venetian, Pisan, Genovese and Portuguese merchants.

Even in the mid 1500s, porcelain pieces were jealously guarded among the most precious ornaments in the dynastical treasures.

For centuries, dining guests admired them for their mystery and the legends that surrounded their composition. However,the mystery could not remain forever.

In 14th century various attempts were made to produce porcelain the West. The greatest success came from a Florentine manufacturer in the Boboli Gardens who, with the backing of the Tuscan Grand duke Francesco Maria de Medici, was able to achieve a limited production from 1575 to 1597, still known as “Medici Porcelain”. The material used in the production is a rather soft paste.

The first “hard” porcelain, akin to that produced in China, came about in 1708-1709 through the collaborative efforts of the physicist and chemist Ehrenfreid Walter von Tschirnhausen and the alchemist and seeker of philosopher's stone Johann Friedrich Böttger.

In 1710, thanks to the interest of Augustus II, King of Poland and Elector of Saxon the first European hard porcelain factory was founded in Meissen aimed at profiting from the discovery made by Böttger. For almost 10 years this factory had no competitors whatsoever due mainly to the fact that the formula was kept secret and the factory was practically sealed off in the Albrechtsburg castle.

Later many other manufacturers emerged in Vienna, then Venice, then France and finally in nearly all the countries in Europe. The discovery and rapid dissemination of porcelain for both useful and decorative purposes was particularly agreeable to the ruling fashion of 18th century. The fragile and exquisite beauty of porcelain and the arcane splendour of its material needed no instigation in a century like the 1700s, when the society s widespread passion for games and intellectual whims, the penchant for the fantasy of form and free inventive the penchant for the fantasy of form and free inventive pluck were a way of life and art.

It’s no small wonder then that porcelain had its day in the Roccocò century along with cabinet making and other minor arts, not only in terms of greater success but also in terms of higher artistic value. Even the architectural style of the period was dominated by small palaces with intimate rooms decorated with plaster and “boiseries” which formed particularly apt cornices for delicate ornaments and translucent figurines. Even the attire of the time, both precious and piebald, lent itself admirably to the porcelain tradition. With wealth in continual abundance, the increasing passion for collections, the imports of tea, coffee and chocolate, products which demanded special receptacles, the luxury of the court (destroyed only during the French revolution) and ever refined taste heightened the appreciation for porcelain and made it more famous than ever. To adorn a hearth in a hall in the period of Louis XV nothing was more sought after than finely decorated vases and porcelain ornaments.

Augustus the Mighty of Saxony,founder of the Meissen factory stood out among the princes and patrons in Germany.

In France it was Madame de Pompadour, the official favourite of Louis XV for many years, who nurtured a special interest in porcelain and who had a great influence on the decorations with her exquisite taste. Thanks to her efforts, the French State factory was transferred from the old Vincennes castle to Sèvres in 1756.

Another royal patron was Carlo di Borbone, King of Naples, who became King of Spain in 1759 under the name Charles III. His wife, Maria Amalia, was one of the daughters of Augustus III of Saxon and Poland and thus granddaughter of Augustus the Mighty. It was not by chance then that a factory was founded by the king in the Capodimonte royal palace in Naples in 1793. When he ascended to the throne in Spain he transferred all the models and artists to the “Buen Ritiro” castle in Madrid.

LThe oldest factory in Italy and the 3rd in Europe was founded in Venice by Giovanni Vezzi in 1720. It had a relatively short life span, however: it was forced to close in 1727 due to financial instability.

Another important porcelain factory was founded in 1735 by Marquise Carlo Ginori in Doccia, near Florence.The Savoy family were patrons of the hard porcelain factory in Vinovo, near Turin, founded in 1776.

In Naples, after the factory was transferred to Spain in 1759, Ferdinand IV founded a new factory in Portici, which began work in 1771.

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