Saturday, November 17, 2007

Bernard Palissy

Bernard Palissy (1510-1590): Amateur scientist, theologian (Hugenot), potter, artist--invented ways of casting from life, developed innovative glazes based on tin and lead. Faced religious persecution most of his life but also produced wares for aristocracy--grottos (for Anne de Montmorency, Catherine de Medici), “rustic wares” (often snakes, crayfish, turtles, lizards, seashells, in marshy environment on large oval basins, platters--also pitchers). Naturalistic grottos actually contain complex allegories of his faith.
Bernard Palissy - artisan to kings, writer, savant, philosopher, lecturer, naturalist, religionist, scientist, and discoverer - was born in 1510. His father was probably an artisan because Palissy was able to draw and paint, skills that were often passed from father to son. A talented student, Palissy learned the arts of portraiture, stained-glass painting, cartography and possibly glassmaking. In the latter 1530s, Palissy settled in Saintes, a small town in southwestern France about sixty-five miles north of Bordeaux. There he married and raised his family of six children. Around 1539 or 1540, he was introduced to ceramics, an event that changed his life. He devoted the next decade to studying and developing a range of white enamel and coloured, lead-based glazes. This was no simple task, as little or nothing was known about chemistry, firing techniques or kilns.
Many colours burnt out while others under-fired. Finding technology that allowed a number of colours to be used on a single piece required extraordinary patience, method and constant experimentation. He and his family were often near starvation.
By about 1550, Palissy developed his "figulines rustiques," or rustic ware style of ceramics (the representation of pond life in naturalistic settings), for which he became renowned. He moulded his subjects: snakes, lizards, frogs, shells, fish, insects, leaves, and ferns--from actual specimens, colouring them with elaborate, multi-coloured glazes. His unique work soon attracted wealthy and powerful patrons, including the high constable Anne de Montmorency, the most powerful man in France next to the king.
France during this time was wracked by religious strife between Catholics and Protestants. In late 1562, the town of Saintes was pillaged by Catholic troops. Palissy's workshop was ravaged by a frenzied mob, his pottery was destroyed and he was arrested. He was saved from execution only by the intervention of Anne de Montmorency and the king, Charles IX. He was appointed Potter to the King and set about designing a garden grotto for Catherine de Medici's Palace de Tuilleries, on the site of the former tileworks. The project was abandonned in 1572 when religious strife again tore through France. Unfortunately, nothing remains of the grotto, but remnants of his studio were found during excavations at the Louvre in the mid-1980s.
Fearing for his life, Palissy left Paris for Sedan, where he continued to make ceramics and study natural history. Encouraged by the Peace of La Rochelle in 1573, he traveled to Paris and invited other scholars, philosophers, scientists and physicians to meet in free discussion. Palissy held the first open lectures on natural history ever delivered in Paris. Around 1576 or 1577 Palissy returned there to live. He continued to be persecuted for his faith and was imprisoned in the Bastille in 1588, where he died at the age of 80, having refused an offer of freedom in return for reverting to Catholicism. He continued to be a figure of speculation and interest, spawning many followers. The highpoint of interest in Palissy came in the 19th c., when interest in natural history and decorative arts led to a revival of Palissy ware.

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