Bernard Palissy, grand artisan of works of the earch

« For forty years I scratched the earth, and searched its entrails
in order to know the things that it produces […]
and by such means I found grace before God
who showed me secrets
which until now have been unknown to men ».
Bernard Palissy

Birth of Bernard Palissy at Saint-Avit

According to tradition, Bernard Palissy was born in Saint-Avit, in the upper valley of the Lède, between the Dordogne and the Lot-et-Garonne. The clues to his birth at Saint-Avit are to be found in lost documents, missing notaries minutes, and letters which were unfortunately burnt. In reality, the only sure indication of the place of birth of Palissy comes from the admissions records of his various condemnations, in Bordeaux and then in Paris, for his activities as a member of the reformed church. The only proven facts are the following : Palissy was definitely born in the Agenais district, and the village of Saint-Avit is the only place laying claim to his birth.

Entering the gallery of the « great men of the nation » in the XIX century, Bernard Palissy has been cited as an example in the school books of numerous generations. Schools have portrayed him as an artisan potter burning his furniture to pierce the secret of enamel. Bernard Palissy himself contributed to this image : « Lacking wood, I was obliged to burn the supports of the trellis in my garden and, these burnt, I was obliged to burn the tables and floorboards of the house ». But this image is inexact and incomplete as Palissy is not a potter but a glass painter who seeks the secret of enamel and who uses pottery as a support. Incomplete because enamel was not his only subject of research, nor the most fundamental.

Training as a glass-painter

Bernard Palissy was born into a modest family. He received training as a glass-painter and travelled around the South West of France. Shortly before 1539 he arrived in Saintes where he settled down with his wife. Here he frequented Pierre Hamelin, come to preach the reform. The preacher was executed. Palissy himself was condemned on innumerable occasions and continued to defend the reformed religion. In Saintonge where, since the Middle Ages, numerous artisans devoted themselves to pottery, Bernard began his researches into enamel, having seen « a turned enamelled cup with enamel of such beauty that I immediately entered into dispute with my own thoughts. » From then on he never ceased searching for the secrets of the sumptuous enamel of Italian ceramics. His research lasted nearly ten years.

While he enriched his knowledge of clays, stones, and discovered fossils, he nevertheless suffered numerous failures in his research into enamel. He did not yet know it, but the temperature of the potter’s kiln that he used was insufficient to melt the enamel. He quarreled incessantly with his wife. Money was in short supply. After many failures, Palissy suspected that the temperature of the potter’s kiln was too low. After a first useful attempt using a glassmaker’s kiln, he decided to build his own kiln, which allowed him to reach temperatures of 1200-1300 degrees and manages at last, in 1549, to reproduce the fusion of the enamel. From 1550 his « vessels of divers enamels intermixed in the manner of jasper » permited him to live from his art.

Rustic « figulines »

Around 1555, he sells his first « rustic figulines ».
These big plates decorated with animals and vegetables, in relief and modelled, bring him celebrity and his name is associated with them. He thus attracts the attention of powerful personages. The Duke of Montmorency commissions a rustic cave for his château at Ecouen, then Catherine de Médicis did the same for the Tuileries gardens. Palissy sets up his workshop, which is later rediscovered in the course of several archaeological excavations in the 19th century, then rediscovered again and fully excavated at the time of the construction of the Grand Louvre in 1985-1986.

In 1572, Bernard Palissy is obliged to flee Paris. Warned just in time, he escapes the bloody night of Saint-Barthelemy. He returns to Paris four years later and takes up again the direction of his Parisian studio. He presents his research and scientific discoveries in public lectures.

In 1588, Palissy is arrested and imprisoned in the Bastille where he dies, a martyr to his faith, in 1590.

His writings

The writings of Bernard Palissy make up an essential part of his work.

“Architecture and ordonnance of the rustic cave of Monseigneur the Duke of Montmorency” is published in April 1563.

In September, the “The True Receipt, by which all the men of France can learn to multiply and increase their treasures” was published, a dense and varied work where he intermingles religious, personal and agricultural considerations, and where he develops as much the plans for an ideal garden as that for a fortified town.

Finally, in “Admirable discourses on the nature of water and fountains, both naturel and artificial, of metals, of salts and salines, of stones, of lay and of fire and of enamels, with several other excellent secrets of natural things”. His works on the enrichment of clays, of the cycle of water and on the fossilisation of animals make him one of the most enlightened of Renaissance men.

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