Bernard Palissy (c. 1510 – c. 1589) was a French Huguenot potter, hydraulics engineer and craftsman, famous for having struggled for sixteen years to imitate Chinese porcelain. In the 19th-century, Palissy's pottery became the inspiration for Mintons Ltd's Victorian majolica, which was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 under the name "Palissy ware".
The date and place of Palissy's birth are not known for certain but are believed to be about 1510, either at Saintes or Agen. It has been stated, on insufficient authority, that his father was a glass-painter and that he served as his father's apprentice. 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.
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 not only failed to discover the secret of Chinese porcelain, but when he did succeed in making the special type of pottery that will always be associated with his name, it was inferior in artistic merit to the contemporary productions of Spain and Italy. His first successes were a superior kind of peasant pottery decorated with modelled or applied reliefs colored naturalistically with glazes and enamels.
These works had already attracted attention locally when, in 1548, the constable de Montmorency was sent into the Saintonge to suppress the revolution there. Montmorency protected the potter and found him employment in decorating the Château d'Écouen with his glazed terra-cottas . The patronage of such an influential noble soon brought Palissy into fame at the French court. Although Palissy was Protestant, these nobles protected him from the ordinances of the parliament of Bordeaux, which, in 1562, seized the property of all the Protestants in this district. Palissy's workshops and kilns were destroyed, but he himself was saved, and, by the interposition of the all-powerful constable, he was appointed inventor of rustic pottery to the king and the queen-mother.
Around 1563, under royal protection, he was allowed to establish a fresh pottery works in Paris in the vicinity of the royal palace of the Louvre. The site of his kilns indeed became afterwards a portion of the Tuileries Garden. For about twenty-five years from this date Palissy lived and worked in Paris. He appears to have been a personal favorite of Catherine de' Medici, and of her sons, in spite of his Protestantism.
Working for the court, his productions passed through many phases, for besides continuing his rustic figurines he made a large number of dishes and plaques ornamented with scriptural or mythological subjects in relief, and in many cases he appears to have made reproductions of the pewter dishes of Francois Briot and other metal workers of the period. During this period he gave several series of public lectures on natural history, the entrance fee being one crown, a large fee for those days. His ideas of springs and underground waters were published in his Discours admirables, de la nature des eaux et fontaines, tant naturelles qu'artificielles, des metaux, des sels et salines, des pierres, des terres, du feu et des maux (Paris, 1580). He was one of the first Europeans to enunciate the correct theory of the origin of fossils and his practical application of Alexandrian theoretical works on hydraulics to the social issue of delivering public water to cities, were far in advance of the general knowledge of his time.
The close of Palissy's life was quite in keeping with his active and stormy youth. Despite the protection of the nobles and the court, the fanatical outburst of 1588 associated with the War of the Three Henrys led to his being thrown into the Bastille. Although Henry III offered him his freedom if he would recant, Palissy refused to save his life on any such terms. Condemned to death when nearly eighty years of age, he died in a Bastille dungeon in 1589.
Palissy figures as one of nineteen exemplary heroes in a series written by Uruguayan author Horacio Quiroga and first published in 1927 in the popular Argentine weekly Caras y Caretas.
- A recent biography is Léonard N. Amico, Bernard Palissy: in search of earthly paradise, 1996.
- "Admirable discourses, of the nature of waters and fountains, both natural and artificial, of metals, salts and brines, of stones, earths, fire and enamels."
- Horacio Quiroga, Los heroismos. Ed. Annie Boule. Posasas, Argentina: Editorial Universitaria, U. Nac. de Misiones, 1998.