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Bernard Palissy – the Protestant potter who died in the Bastille

Posted in Arts and Crafts, Famous artists, Historical articles, History, Religion, Royalty on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

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This edited article about Bernard Palissy first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 568 published on 2 December 1972.

Bernard Palissy,  picture, image, illustration

Bernard Palissy burning furniture to heat his furnace by Planella

Bernard Palissy could so easily have lived and died without leaving any trace of his existence on the pages of history if it had not been for a chance meeting which changed the course of his whole life. He had begun his career as a portrait painter and a glass painter, and as such he was a good, solid craftsman, capable of earning himself a reasonable living as a travelling workman. In this capacity, he had travelled extensively through the Low Lands and the Rhine Provinces of Germany, as well as having seen more of his homeland of France than most of his fellow countrymen.

In the year of 1559 he returned to France and settled in the little town of Saintes, where he supported himself as a surveyor, a skill he had acquired as a youth. There he might have lived out his years in happy obscurity if he had not had the misfortune to meet a gentleman named Pons who had returned to France after spending many years in Italy. He had brought back with him, among other things, a piece of white enamelled pottery. He showed it to Palissy who was enchanted by it. What a thing of beauty it was. Palissy held it in his hands, almost reverently. Where was it made? And how had the potter who had made it, managed to achieve that beautiful white glaze?

Alas, Pons did not know the answers to either of those questions. But it did not matter, or so Palissy thought at the time. He himself would find the answers – and in the most practical way. He would first become a potter himself. Then he would apply himself to finding the secret formula for the glaze. A knowledge of the potter’s craft, hard work and a determined spirit would surely produce results.

First, Palissy went to the neighbouring village of La Chapelle-des-Pots, where he mastered the craft of peasant pottery as it was practised in the 16th century. His workshop where he had once peacefully painted his commissioned portraits of the local worthies, now became a madman’s lair, as he toiled day and night, striving to recreate that fantastic white glaze which had so haunted his imagination.

Week after week, month after month, year after year, Palissy toiled away, making experiments with pieces of common pots over which he spread the different mixtures he had made. These pieces, he tells us in his autobiography, “I baked in a furnace, hoping that one of these mixtures would produce a colour.”

For nearly sixteen years, Palissy laboured ceaselessly, sacrificing everything, even the happiness of his wife and children in order to achieve a goal which always seemed to elude him. It was not enough that they should live in the direst poverty. The amount of wood needed to feed his furnace was enormous, and when Palissy could no longer afford to buy it, he chopped down all the trees and bushes in his garden. When the garden had been stripped bare, he turned his attention to the contents of the house. Before the horrified eyes of his wife, he took an axe and chopped up all the furniture for firewood. When that was gone, he set to work on the floorboards.

At the end of those sixteen years, Palissy had become an accomplished potter. He had produced large plates, ewers, oval dishes and vases on which he had applied the figures of reptiles and fish, shells and other objects. Most of them he had painted, using crude greens, bright purples and various tints of blues. But none of them was covered with that white glaze which Palissy had so fondly imagined he would one day be able to reproduce.

At one time a number of historians assumed that the piece of pottery that had so fired Palissy’s imagination was a piece of Italian enamelled majolica, but it is a theory, which, as later historians have pointed out, does not stand up to examination. Palissy was a man who had travelled widely, and it therefore seems hardly probable that he would not have come across this type of work. It is more probable that what he was shown was a specimen of Chinese porcelain. Whatever it was, Palissy never discovered the secret of how to make it.

Even so, his years of toil and sacrifice were not really wasted. His work was brought to the attention of an influential nobleman, who, in turn, introduced his work to the French Court, where he became a personal favourite of Catherine de’Medici, the mother of Charles IX, the boy king of France. It was Catherine who really held the reins of government, and as she was also a fanatical Catholic, her support of Palissy was surprising, considering that he was a firm follower of the Protestant faith.

He was working in Paris and growing rich in the process, when the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve took place. Even then, when Protestants were being slaughtered all around him, Palissy was still unmolested. When Henry III, a man equally determined to quench the fires of the Protestant faith, came to the throne, Palissy was still allowed to continue making his pieces of “rustic” pottery in peace.

A wise man would have decided that the times were such as to make it necessary for him to keep himself very much in the background. Instead, Palissy brought even more attention to himself by giving public lectures on natural history. All that happened was that he became richer than ever on the fees he received for his lectures.

During the years that followed Palissy continued to work steadily at his furnaces. He was now seventy-five, and having reached that age without losing his head as an unrepentant Protestant, he might well have been excused if he had assumed that he would be able to end his days in peace. But as luck would have it, Henry suddenly decided that the time had come at last to take more active measures against the Protestants. In the purge that followed, Palissy suffered with the rest of them. He was thrown in the Bastille, and although Henry offered him his freedom if he recanted, Palissy refused to save his life on those terms. After a brief trial he was sentenced to death.

Saved from the headman’s axe only by the intervention of a powerful member of the court, the Duc de Mayenne, Palissy languished in the Bastille, growing steadily weaker until death released him at the age of eighty. He had been a prisoner for four years. No doubt during that harrowing time he must have pondered often on the fact that if he had not seen that exquisite piece of porcelain, he might well have ended his days happily, far away from the Royal Court that had brought him both fame and an ignominious end in a dungeon.

Much of Palissy’s pottery survives, and can be seen in the Louvre in Paris, and in the Victoria and Albert Museum and in the British Museum in London. In certain circles he is considered one of the great potters of the world – a strange epitaph for a man who became a potter almost by accident.

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