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Pottery with Palissy

pottery, ceramic, bernard palissy, renaissance, art, louvre

The renaissance is a very important period in many domains. Philisophy, religion and of course art. Many artists from this period of time are still among the most sought out names in the world such as, Botticelli, da Vinci, Raphael and of course our main attraction, Bernard Palissy.

Dates surrounding the time life of Palissy are very rare, obscure and often contradictory. Believed to be born in 1510, in either Saintes or Agen, the later being renound for its pottery tradition dating from midevil ages. Both date and locality are uncertain though. Coming from a poor and rural family, it is said that Palissy served as an apprentice to his father, who was a glass-painter. At the same time, he learned to read and write by himself. At the end of his apprenticeship he followed the general custom and became a travelling workman.

In 1539, Palissy appears to have returned to his roots in Saintes. Having married, the first few years of his new life are again, enigmatic. What is known, as he tells us from his autobiography is that he practised the arts of portrait-painter, glass-painter and landsurveyor as a means of livelyhood. At this time he was commissioned to survey and prepare a plan of the salt marshes in the neighbrhood of Saintes, when the council of Francis I determined to establish a salt tax in the Saintonge. It is not quite clear whether it was during his Wanderjahr or after he settled in Saintes that he was introduced to a white enamelled cup that would amaze him and change his life, and work, forever. Determined to discover the secrets of its manufacture, he would spend his life, as he once said, ‘Like a man who gropes in the dark’.

Most writers have supposed that this fine white pottery was a piece of the enamelled majolica of Italy. However, in Palissy’s time, white tin-enamel was manufatured at many centres in Italy, Spain, Germany and the South of France. It is virtualy impossible that for a man who so travelled and was so acute, that he would’nt already be acquainted with its appearance and propreties. A story more likely is that Palissy saw among the treasures of some nobleman, a specimen of Chinese porcelain, at the time a wonder of the European world. Knowning nothing of its nature, substance or manufacture, Palissy set himself to discover the secrets of this newly found specimen.
La Chapelle-des-Pots, a nearby village, is where he learned the basics of peseant pottery as it was pratised in the 16th century. Equipment he had none, except indefinite information he presumably acquired during his travels of the manufacture of European tin-enamelled pottery.

For nearly sixteen years Palissy labored on. Working with diligency and constancy and for the most part through a succession of utter failures without a gleam of hope, the story gets even more tragic. He and his family now being reduced to absolute poverty, he began to burn his furniture. It is even said that he also used the floor boards of his house to feed the fires of his kilns, while sustaining the reproaches of his wife. She evidently regarded these proceedings as nothing short of insanity since her little family were clamouring for food. All these struggles and failures were recorded by Palissy himself in his autobiography. He not only failed to discover the secret of Chinese porcelain, but he did succeed in making the special type of pottery that will always be associated with his name.
His first success came as a superior kind of peseant pottery decorated with modelled or applied reliefs colored naturalistically with glazes and enamels. Palissy, almost certain never used a potters wheel. All his best known pieces have been pressed into a mould and then finished by modelling or by the application of ornament moulded in relief. His most known productions are large plates,ewers, oval dishes and vases to which he applied realistic figures of reptiles, fish, shells, plants and other objects.

His work was now attracting attention localy in 1548, when the constable of Montmorency was sent into Saintonge to surpress the revolution. Montmorency protected the potter and found him work decorating with his glazed terra-cottas, the chateau d’Ecouen. With the assistance of such an influencial noble, Palissy soon became famous at the French court. Although he was an avowed Protestant, he was protected by these nobles from an ordinance of the parliament of Bordeaux.

In 1562, the proprety of all Protestants in this district was seized. Palissy’s workshops were destroyed, but he himself was saved. Appointed inventor of rustic pottery to the king and the queen-mother, in 1563, he was allowed to establish a workshop in Paris, in the vicinity of the royal palace of the Louvre. From 1567 to 1572 he worked for Catherine de Medicis, who seemed to be a favorite of hers and her sons, inspite of his profession of the reformed religion.
While working for the court, his productions had many phases. In 1574, the rustic figulines seem to disapear to make place for mythological personas. It appears that during this time he gave several series of public lectures on natural history. His ideas of springs and underground waters were far in advance of the general knowledge. He was one of the first men in Europe to produce the correct theory of fossils.

Near the end of Palissy’s life, he was protected against ecclesiastical persecution by the court and some great nobles. But the fanatical outburst of 1588 caused Palissy to be thrown into the Bastille. Although Henry III offered him his freedom if he would recant, he refused to save his life on any such terms. He was condemned to death when, at nearly eighty years old, he died of hunger or necessities, in one of the dungeons of the Bastille in 1589.
Palissy is highly regarded for his contribution to the advancement of soil science, geology, geohydrology, geomorphology and biology.
The best collections of Palissys work are those in the museums of the Louvre, the Hotel Cluny and Sèvre. Also in England, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, together with a few choice pieces in the British Museum and in the Wallace Collection.
Published: 2007-11-19
Author: Derek Cyr

About the author or the publisher
Born and raised in front of the ocean has a way of always wanting to look further. For this reason, I have always been interested at looking at every aspect of life. To say that I like everything would be wrong. To say that I usually like to try before deciding would be fair. By doing this, I was able to narrow down what I’m interested in. I started playing drums at 10 years old and I have never got tired of it. I also love kayaking ever since I discovered, as a child, that water can be an open road. My love of writing came when I realized that, though many people read, most don’t completly read. It can be skipping a phrase while reading a book or just reading the headline of an article. I try my best to find a way of writing that will make people read the whole thing before turning the page.

As for interests go, you can say that life and death interest me very much. So much of unknown aspects in both worlds. Family, friends, music, movies, books and newspapers will always keep me happy.

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