When Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo set off to explore the east in 1271, he returned with products and innovations that were brought to the forefront of European markets. For 17 years he remained in China, learning different crafts, indulging in new spices, and discovering new ideas. Deemed “white gold” by old empires in Europe, porcelain was one of these coveted products. And for hundreds of years after that, the race to secure a supply of porcelain between these empires would begin.
Marco Polo’s Exploration
Marco came from a family of shrewd and talented merchants, stemming from the Italian city and center of trade that is Venice. Going eastward was not unfamiliar to the Polo family, as his own father, Niccolo, and his uncle, Maffeo, both would travel to the Middle East for new products and trade, giving a bit of prestige to their name. Eventually, they’d engage in trade with the terrifying Mongol Empire, bringing friendly relations between themselves and the East, and had acted as ambassadors on behalf of the Khan.
Marco himself would join his family on one of these adventures to the East, their destination being the Yuan Dynasty in China. Assisted and backed by Pope Gregory X, they would set off in 1271 from Acre, a middle eastern city in the Levant. The Polo family would make their way through Turkey and North Persia, and took a land route through Central Asia and North China, exploring and stopping in many cities along the way. Their journey would end at Shangdu, the seat of the Khan’s court and the capital of the Empire.
Marco Polo and his family would stay in the Empire for 17 years, engaging in the Khan’s court and exploring the Empire’s dominions. His autobiography Il Milione highlighted some of the duties his family would fulfill, such as military advisors for the Chinese, and inventors and technical designers, bringing new technology to the Yuan Dynasty. Marco himself, being well-versed in many of the Middle Eastern and Turkic languages, would often be sent to explore the edges of the empire, and recently conquered lands, often the South West such as Yunnan and Myanmar.
The Polos would eventually have the desire to leave the Khan’s court, as Kublai was in his 80s, and they had anticipated the turmoil the empire would fall under upon his death. Reluctantly, the Khan let the Polo family go, accompanying a princess to Persia to be married off. Rather than taking a land route, they’d return via sea, exploring cultures and peoples new to them, such as the Vietnamese and several islands in modern-day Indonesia. Around Sri Lanka and the Indian subcontinent, the princess would finally meet her future husband in Persia. Ironically, after leaving the Khan’s holdings and reentering Christian territories, they’d be robbed in Anatolia of most of their earnings, before finally returning to Venice.
The journey wasn’t all for naught, as they were able to return with some of their goods, and their minds weren’t able to be robbed of the information they learned in China. Ideas such as paper money, a navigation device known as the compass, silk, ivory, jade, spices, and importantly for this article, porcelain. Polo would dub the material "porcellano," after the cowrie shell found in Italy. As it's one of the hardest substances with a smooth and artistic finish, it's no wonder porcelain would be so heavily sought after. His expeditions of the Eastern world would inspire Europeans to explore further, find ways to reach the East, and would even inspire European explorers like Christopher Columbus’, and many others, to journey westwards.
Early Trade Routes for Chinese Porcelain
The Silk Road would be instrumental in forming trade with the Eastern world for the Europeans. While predating Marco Polo’s journey for a thousand years, Polo’s journey would inspire the Europeans to seek further connection with the East. Trade would grow and remain relatively undisturbed until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 when the Ottoman Empire would cut off and embargo European trade along the Silk Road. Attempting to get around the behemoth that was the Ottomans, Europeans would sponsor exploration attempting to find access to Chinese goods.
It wouldn’t be until the 1500s, over 200 years after Marco Polo’s journey, that Western trade would find itself commonplace, and done on European terms. The Portuguese and the Dutch would be the first to start importing Chinese goods, such as fine art and furniture, as well as spices and tea, and of course, Chinese ceramic products. Porcelain manufacturing had started as far back as the Shang Dynasty and would mature and innovate under the Tang Dynasty. The mastery of this handmade craft had been worked on for thousands of years. Working with ceramics and terracotta stoneware would be a part of the Chinese culture, creating great works like the terracotta army. The baked earth would find itself crafted at increasingly high temperatures, from basic terracotta pots to white porcelain and glazed stoneware.
Upon leasing the trade port of Macau to the Portuguese, Chinese pottery would finally find itself being manufactured specifically for Europe. Europeans could not quite figure out how to produce porcelain on their own, experimenting with different tools and materials. The secret ingredients would be a material called kaolin, commonplace in China, but not a resource that would be at the forefront of European concerns. But it wasn’t just porcelain that the Europeans desired in China. The later Qing Dynasty would be subject to the many whims of the Europeans. Soon the British and French, followed by many others, would place their stake in China, most notable being today's Hong Kong. Whether it be for tea, spices, or distributing their own goods like opium, the Qing would have their markets robbed of many goods, porcelain included.
Porcelain’s Reinvention in Europe
Europeans would experiment with the idea of porcelain for hundreds of years, chasing their “white gold.” The first soft-paste porcelain would be invented in Florence in the late 1500s, but Francesco I de Medici. But it would falter in quality compared to the Chinese products, not being what is considered true porcelain. It wouldn’t be until 1710 that Europeans would figure out what truly made porcelain special, kaolin. The first hard-paste porcelain would be credited to Johann Friedrich Böttger, an alchemist that claimed he could turn base metals into gold. In truth, Böttger had no desire to work with porcelain, but having the Prussian monarch at his throat brought some inspiration to him. The secret to Meissen porcelain would be a closely kept secret, and production would be kept to Saxony for years.
Porcelain would eventually find its way to Russia under the guidance of Peter ‘the Great’ and later his daughter Tsar Elizabeth I. Tsar Peter I would take interest in the ongoings of Europe and follow the inventions that would take place to take back to his rapidly modernizing country. Porcelain was one of these inventions, but Peter would not live long enough to see it in his lifetime. Tsar Elizabeth would take over Peter’s work, and hired scientist Dmitry Vinogradov who found mild success, using a Gzel clay, as well as Olonets quartz and alabaster to make his own form of Russian porcelain, and by 1744, the first Russian porcelain factory would be founded.
Porcelain’s secret production method quickly spread across Europe after Böttger’s discovery, seeing a factory in Vienna by 1719, and to Italy soon after in Florence in 1737. Different types of porcelain would start popping up. Almost every German state would found their own porcelain factories, lining their halls with porcelain tablewares, lining goods with porcelain enamel, and using porcelain as diplomatic gifts. While just being a small part, porcelain, among other products, would inspire the European powers to find a way to Eastern markets, leading to a wave of exploration during that century. Porcelain would take Europe by storm, whether through imports and trade, to invention and self-production, and the titular white gold of Europe would be a mainstay in the nobility’s households for centuries, to this day.
The Double Shot Espresso Cup, is a handmade, comfortable one-fingered cup.
* Cup measures 3”x 2.5”x 2.75”
* Holds 4oz or two shots of espresso
* Microwave and dishwasher safe
The Nesting Bowl Set, delightful oval-shaped space-savers, are a stylish set of bowls for your home or as a special occasion gift, such as a wedding gift to housewarming gift.
* The largest bowl measures 12.5”x 10.75”x 5.75” to fit serving needs.
* The medium bowl measures 9.5”x 8.75”x 5.5” ideal for grapes and citrus.
* The small bowl measures 7.15”x 6”x 4.25”, perfect for snacks
Microwave and dishwasher safe.