Bernard Palissy, a self portrait in ceramics
Bernard Palissy (c1510 - c.1589)
Bernard Palissy was born in either Saintes, Périgord, Limousin or Agen in France . He lived most of his life in Saintonge. Palissy was born to a poor family, and while his education did not include Greek or Latin, it did instruct him in practical sciences including geometry and surveying. Early in his life, Palissy was commissioned by the crown to survey the salt marshes of Saintonge. In his memoirs, Palissy tells us that he was apprenticed to a glass-painter. At the end of his apprenticeship he spent a journeyman year acquiring fresh knowledge in many parts of France, including Guyenne, Languedoc, Provence, Dauphiné, Burgundy and the Loire. He later traveled north to the Low Countries, perhaps even in the Rhine Provinces of Germany, and to Italy.
Palissy returned to Saintonge where he married and had children and worked as a portrait-painter, glass-painter and land-surveyor. In around 1539 or 1540 he was shown a white enamelled cup (which might have had several origins) and determined to master the technique for producing it. He learned the rudiments of pottery making in the neighbouring village of La Chapelle les Pots and then spent the next 16 years in experimenting. While he never succeeded in satisfactorily producing a white enamel, he did produce colourful decorated plates and large figurines, in a style later known as Palissy ware.
n 1542, a peasant revolt against the "gabelle" salt tax in Saintonge resulted in royal forces, headed by the Duc de Montmorency, arriving near Palissy's home. The duke was impressed by Palissy's artistry and commissioned him to build retreats at the Château d'Écouen and Meudon. Palissy was then brought to Paris in 1548 under the protection of Montmorency and Catherine des Medicis. Despite his conversion to Protestantism in 1546, in a departure from the established Catholic religion, Catherine asked Palissy to construct gardens for her in the Tuileries. In 1562, she gave him an official title in her court: "the king's inventor of rustic figurines."
Although Palissy was Protestant, his noble connections protected him from the ordinances of the parliament of Bordeaux. In 1562, it seized the property of all the Protestants in this district. Palissy's workshops and kilns were destroyed, but he was saved. By the interposition of the all-powerful constable, he was appointed inventor of rustic pottery to the king and the queen-mother. In 1563 he was allowed to to establish a fresh pottery works in Paris in the vicinity of the royal palace of the Louvre. The site of his kilns afterward became included within a portion of the Tuileries Garden. For about twenty-five years from this date, Palissy lived and worked in Paris. He appears to have remained a personal favorite of Catherine de' Medici and of her sons, in spite of his Protestantism. Catherine may have saved him from the bloodshed of Saint Bartholemew's Day Massacre in 1572.
Palissy was outspoken in his Protestant beliefs and an outburst of 1588 associated with the War of the Three Henrys finally led to his being thrown into the Bastille. According to D'Aubigné and fellow Protestants, Henry III offered Palissy his freedom if he would recant, though Palissy refused. Condemned to death when nearly eighty years of age, he died in a Bastille dungeon in 1590.
While living in Paris, Palissy 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). The entire work is presented as a dialogue between ‘‘theory’’ and ‘‘practice’’ with practice invariably showing theory to be incorrect.
This included one of the first expressions of the modern hydrological cycle. He noted that "When I had long and closely examined the source of the springs of natural fountains, and the place whence they could come, I finally understood that they could not come from or be produced by anything but rains." (Palissy 1957, p. 48)
Palissy rejected the common argument that sea water migrated through hidden channels in the earth, emerging as mountain springs that fed rivers. First he noted, ‘‘if the fountains and rivers came from the sea their waters would be salty’’ (Palissy 1957, p. 58). This was an obvious argu- ment. But Palissy had some original insights. He observed that some coastal areas contained both salt water and fresh water wells, and that fresh water could be found in some island wells. Fresh water on islands surrounded by the salt water of the sea could only come from rainfall (Palissy 1957, p. 58).
Noting that springs commonly dried up during the dry months of July, August, and September, Palissy argued, ‘‘if the springs of fountains came from the sea, how could they dry out in summer?’’ (Palissy 1957, p. 51). At the same time, Palissy explained how rivers could run in the absence of rainfall. There was, he said, a delay in the time from infiltration to base flow. Rain water that falls on mountains, lands, and all places that slope toward rivers or fountains, do not get to them so very quickly . [so] all springs are fed from the end of one winter to the next. (Palissy 1957, p. 67–68)
Palissy first used the term evaporation for the change of state from liquid to vapour as "vaporisation from land" and explained the formation of clouds.
He was one of the first Europeans to enunciate theory consistent with today's understandings of the origin of fossils. That 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.
Palissy maintained that experience or practice should inform theory, which was useless without empirical foundations. He furthermore argued that scientific knowledge should be derived from observation and practice before classical philosophy:
"If things conceived in the mind could be executed, [alchemists] would do great things... [We must] confess that practice is the source of theory... By experiment I prove in several places that the theory of several philosophers is false, even of the most renowned and the most ancient."— Bernard Palissy, (quoted by Henry Morley in 1853)
Palissy described systems for acquiring or transporting water, and for insuring its quality, adding that any unable to reproduce his instructions were free to contact him through his publisher. He elaborated upon a theory of hydrothermal vents, volcanoes and earthquakes, which he attributed to a mixture of volatile substances and combustion beneath the earth surface. Palissy furthermore correctly surmised the origin of springs in his study of hydrology and geology.
Palissy correctly maintained that fossils were the remains of once living organisms, and contested the prevailing view that they had been produced by the biblical flood, or by astrological influence. He argued that minerals, dissolving into water to form "congelative water," would precipitate and thereby petrify once living organisms in order to create fossils.
Deming, D., 2005. Born to trouble: Bernard Palissy and the hydrologic cycle. Groundwater, 43(6), pp.969-972.
Palissy, B. 1580. Discours Admirables. Paris, France: M. le Jeune.
Palissy, B. 1957. The Admirable Discourses of Bernard Palissy. Translated into English by Aure`le La Rocque. Urbana, Illi- nois: University of Illinois Press.
Morley, Henry (1853). Palissy the Potter: The Life of Bernard Palissy. Boston: Ticknor, Reed and Fields.
Wright, Brooks (1943). The Geological Studies of Bernard Palissy. Cambridge: Harvard University Thesis.
Amico, Léonard N., Bernard Palissy: in search of earthly paradise, 1996.
Miralles, D. G., Brutsaert, W., Dolman, A. J. & Gash, J. H. On the Use of the Term “Evapotranspiration”. Water Resour Res 56, (2020).