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Bernard Palissy

Mar - 10 - 2013
Bernard Palissy

Bernard Palissy, self-portrait in faience

Palissy (pah-le-se’), Bernard. A famous French potter, chemist, and enameler. Born near Agen, about 1510. The date and place of Palissy’s birth are not known for certain but are believed to be about 1510.The pottery made by Palissy, known as the Palissy ware, is much prized, and is distinguished for the high relief of figures and ornaments. Died 1589.

Palissy worked as a painter and surveyor before he one day spotted “an earthen cup, turned and enameled with such beauty that I was immediately transfixed.” He may have seen the cup around 1540, and he spent the next several years trying to make perfect ceramics of his own. According to his account, at one point, he was so poor and desperate that he fed his kiln with the wooden tables and floors of his own house. Art historian Martin Kemp has stated that Palissy’s account may be “less than reliable,” and the simple fact that Palissy’s wife didn’t kill him for torching all their furniture supports Kemp’s contention. A thoroughly accurate historian or not, Palissy eventually found fame, not to mention the ability to support his family effectively, for a type of pottery that contained no dainty white cups. He coated his plates with life-sized replicas of amphibians, reptiles, shells, bugs and plants.


In his memoirs, Palissy tells us that he was apprenticed to a glass-painter and also learned the skill of land-surveying. At the end of his apprenticeship and following the custom of the day, he became a traveling workman; acquiring fresh knowledge in many parts of France and the Low Countries, perhaps even in the Rhine Provinces of Germany and in Italy.

Bernard Palissy

Ewer, 1580–1600, follower of Bernard Palissy, Victoria and Albert Museum, no. 7178-1860

It appears that Palissy returned to his native district around 1539, married, and set up house in Saintes. Other than what he tells us in his autobiography, namely that he worked as a portrait-painter, glass-painter and land-surveyor, we have little record of how he lived during the first years of his married life. It is known that he was commissioned to survey and prepare a plan of the salt marshes near Saintes when the council of King Francis I determined to establish a salt tax in the Saintonge.
At some point, Palissy was shown a white enamelled cup which caused him such surprise that he determined to spend his life to discover the secrets of its manufacture. Some writers have supposed that this piece of fine white pottery was a piece of the enamelled majolica of Italy, but such a theory will hardly bear examination. In Palissy’s time pottery covered with beautiful white tin-glaze was manufactured throughout Italy, Spain, Germany and the South of France, and it is inconceivable that a man as travelled and as acute as Palissy should not have been well acquainted with its appearance and properties.
What is much more likely is that Palissy saw, among the treasures of some nobleman, a specimen of Chinese porcelain, and, knowing nothing of its nature, substance or manufacture, he set himself to work to discover the secrets for himself. At the neighboring village of La Chapelle-des-Pots he mastered the rudiments of peasant pottery as it was practised in the 16th century. He may also have learned of manufacture of European tin-enamelled pottery.

For nearly sixteen years Palissy labored to recreate the pottery that he had seen, working with the utmost diligency but never succeeding. At times he and his family were reduced to poverty; he burned his furniture and even, it is said, the floor boards of his house to feed the fires of his furnaces. Meanwhile, he endured the reproaches of his wife, who, with her little family clamouring for food, evidently regarded her husband’s endeavors as little short of insanity. All these struggles and failures are faithfully recorded by Palissy himself in his autobiography.

Palissy was among the first to argue for the organic origin of fossils.

Bernard Palissy by Mihály Zichy

Bernard Palissy by Mihály Zichy

And because there are also rocks filled with shells, even on the summits of high mountains, you must not think that these shells were formed, as some say, because Nature amuses itself with making something new. When I closely examined the shape of the rocks, I found that none of them can take the shape of a shell or other animal if the animal itself has not built its shape.
Hand-in-hand with insights about fossilization came a keen understanding of the earth’s water cycle. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, naturalists had puzzled over why streams and rivers kept emptying into the ocean, which somehow never filled beyond its capacity to accept more water. Perhaps the world’s ocean funneled water into springs via subterranean channels? No, Palissy argued. Springs were fed by rain, and often dried up during the dry season. Rivers and streams kept running because the water took time to infiltrate the waterways.

Looking at the behavior of both fossils and water, Palissy rejected the idea that the biblical flood could have deposited all fossils throughout the world, even on the highest mountaintops. But this stance put him in a shaky position because the fossil shells he found well above sea level resembled marine — not freshwater — species. (Palissy got out of the difficulty by suggesting the fossils had come from inland lakes that had somehow been salty.) He didn’t escape every theological tight spot quite so easily; more than once, he was imprisoned for his Calvinist beliefs. Being an alchemist didn’t help him avoid accusations of heresy, either. After two especially difficult years of imprisonment, he died in 1590.

Palissy made the best he could of his time in prison, writing admirable dialogues on earth science in 1563 and 1580, and taking pride in his status as a “man without Latin.” The claim was likely a bit disingenuous; he owned plenty of books and was well read. Nevertheless, the dialogues he wrote were debates between Theory and Practice. Practice won every single debate. Clearly even the worst situations didn’t dampen his self-confidence.

“I have found grace before God, who has revealed to me secrets which until now have remained unknown to men, even the most learned, as may be ascertained from my writings “
His work as a naturalist, however, went largely unappreciated until the 18th century.

Resources on the Internet
Bernard Palissy Biography
Bernard Palissy

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