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Bernard Palissy

In the Louvre in Paris, preserved among almost priceless gems, are

several pieces of exquisite pottery called Palissy ware. Thousands

examine them every year, yet but few know the struggles of the man who

made such beautiful works of art.

Born in the south of France in 1509, in a poor, plain home, Bernard

Palissy grew to boyhood, sunny-hearted and hopeful, learning the trade

of painting on glass from his
ather. He had an ardent love for nature,

and sketched rocks, birds, and flowers with his boyish hands. When he

was eighteen, he grew eager to see the world, and, with a tearful

good-by from his mother, started out to seek his fortune. For ten years

he travelled from town to town, now painting on glass for some rich

lord, and now sketching for a peasant family in return for food.

Meantime he made notes about vegetation, and the forming of crystals in

the mountains of Auvergne, showing that he was an uncommon boy.

Finally, like other young people, he fell in love, and was married at

twenty-eight. He could not travel about the country now, so he settled

in the little town of Saintes. Then a baby came into their humble home.

How could he earn more money, since the poor people about him had no

need for painted glass? Every time he tried to plan some new way to grow

richer, his daily needs weighed like a millstone around his neck.

About this time he was shown an elegant enamelled cup from Italy. "What

if I could be the first and only maker of such ware in France?" thought

he. But he had no knowledge of clay, and no money to visit Italy, where

alone the secret could be obtained.

The Italians began making such pottery about the year 1300. Two

centuries earlier, the Pagan King of Majorca, in the Mediterranean Sea,

was said to keep confined in his dungeons twenty thousand Christians.

The Archbishop of Pisa incited his subjects to make war upon such an

infidel king, and after a year's struggle, the Pisans took the island,

killed the ruler, and brought home his heir, and great booty. Among the

spoils were exquisite Moorish plates, which were so greatly admired that

they were hung on the walls of Italian churches. At length the people

learned to imitate this Majolica ware, which brought very high prices.

The more Palissy thought about this beautiful pottery, the more

determined he became to attempt its making. But he was like a man

groping in the dark. He had no knowledge of what composed the enamel on

the ware; but he purchased some drugs, and ground them to powder. Then

he bought earthen pots, broke them in pieces, spread the powder upon the

fragments, and put them in a furnace to bake. He could ill afford to

build a furnace, or even to buy the earthenware; but he comforted his

young wife with the thought that as soon as he had discovered what would

produce white enamel they would become rich.

When the pots had been heated sufficiently, as he supposed, he took them

out, but, lo! the experiment had availed nothing. Either he had not hit

upon the right ingredients, or the baking had been too long or too short

in time. He must of course try again. For days and weeks he pounded and

ground new materials; but no success came. The weeks grew into months.

Finally his supply of wood became exhausted, and the wife was losing her

patience with these whims of an inventor. They were poor, and needed

present income rather than future prospects. She had ceased to believe

Palissy's stories of riches coming from white enamel. Had she known that

she was marrying an inventor, she might well have hesitated, lest she

starve in the days of experimenting; but now it was too late.

His wood used up, Palissy was obliged to make arrangements with a potter

who lived three miles away, to burn the broken pieces in his furnace.

His enthusiasm made others hopeful; so that the promise to pay when

white enamel was discovered was readily accepted. To make matters sure

of success at this trial, he sent between three and four hundred pieces

of earthenware to his neighbor's furnace. Some of these would surely

come back with the powder upon them melted, and the surface would be

white. Both himself and wife waited anxiously for the return of the

ware; she much less hopeful than he, however. When it came, he says in

his journal, "I received nothing but shame and loss, because it turned

out good for nothing."

Two years went by in this almost hopeless work, then a third,--three

whole years of borrowing money, wood, and chemicals; three years of

consuming hope and desperate poverty. Palissy's family had suffered

extremely. One child had died, probably from destitution. The poor wife

was discouraged, and at last angered at his foolishness. Finally the

pottery fever seemed to abate, and Palissy went back to his drudgery of

glass-painting and occasional surveying. Nobody knew the struggle it had

cost to give up the great discovery; but it must be done.

Henry II., who was then King of France, had placed a new tax on salt,

and Palissy was appointed to make maps of all the salt-marshes of the

surrounding country. Some degree of comfort now came back to his family.

New clothes were purchased for the children, and the overworked wife

repented of her lack of patience. When the surveying was completed, a

little money had been saved, but, alas! the pottery fever had returned.

Three dozen new earthen pots were bought, chemicals spread over them as

before, and these taken to a glass-furnace, where the heat would be much

greater. He again waited anxiously, and when they were returned, some of

the powder had actually melted, and run over the earthenware. This added

fuel to the flame of his hope and ambition. And now, for two whole years

more, he went between his house and the glass-furnace, always hoping,

always failing.

His home had now become like a pauper's. For five years he had chased

this will-o'-the-wisp of white enamel; and the only result was the

sorrow of his relatives and the scorn of his neighbors. Finally he

promised his heart-broken wife that he would make but one more trial,

and if this failed, he would give up experimenting, and support her and

the children. He resolved that this should be an almost superhuman

effort. In some unknown way he raised the money for new pots and three

hundred mixtures of chemicals. Then, with the feelings of a man who has

but one chance for life, he walked beside the person who carried his

precious stock to the furnace. He sat down before the mouth of the great

hot oven, and waited four long hours. With what a sinking heart he

watched the pieces as they were taken out! He hardly dared look, because

it would probably be the old story of failure. But, lo! some were

melted, and as they hardened, oh, joy unspeakable, they turned white!

He hastened home with unsteady step, like one intoxicated, to tell his

wife the overwhelming truth. Surely he could not stop now in this great

work; and all must be done in secret, lest other potters learn the art.

Fears, no doubt, mingled with the new-born hopes of Mrs. Palissy, for

there was no regular work before her husband, and no steady income for

hungry little mouths. Besides, he must needs build a furnace in the shed

adjoining their home. But how could he obtain the money? Going to the

brick yard, he pledged some of the funds he hoped to receive in the

future, and brought home the bricks upon his back. Then he spent seven

long months experimenting in clay vessels, that he might get the best

shapes and quality to take the enamel. For another month, from early

morning till late at night, he pounded his preparations of tin, lead,

iron, and copper, and mixed them, as he hoped, in proper proportions.

When his furnace was ready, he put in his clay pots, and seated himself

before the mouth.

All day and all night, he fed the fire, his little children bringing him

soup, which was all the food the house afforded. A second day and night

he watched the results eagerly; but the enamel did not melt. Covered

with perspiration, and faint from loss of sleep and food, with the

desperation of hope that is akin to despair, for six days and six

nights, catching scarcely a moment of sleep, he watched the earthen

pots; but still the enamel did not melt. At last, thinking that his

proportions in his mixtures might have been wrong, he began once more to

pound and grind the materials without letting his furnace cool. His clay

vessels which he had spent seven months in making were also useless, so

he hastened to the shops, and bought new ones.

The family were now nearly frantic with poverty and the pottery madness

of the father. To make matters quite unbearable, the wood had given out,

and the furnace-fires must not stop. Almost wild with hope deferred, and

the necessities of life pressing upon him, Palissy tore up the fence

about his garden, and thrust it into the furnace-mouth. Still the enamel

did not melt. He rushed into the house, and began breaking up the table

and chairs for fuel. His wife and children were horrified. They ran

through the streets, crying out that Palissy was tearing the house down,

and had become crazy. The neighbors gathered, and begged him to desist,

but all to no purpose. He tore up the floors of the house, and threw

them in. The town jeered at him, and said, "It is right that he die of

hunger, seeing that he has left off following his trade." He was

exhausted and dried up by the heat of the furnace; but still he could

not yield. Finally the enamel melted. But now he was more crazy than

before. He must go forward, come what might.

With his family nearer than ever to starvation, he hired an assistant

potter, promising the old promise,--to pay when the discovery had been

perfected. The town of Saintes must have become familiar with that

promise. An innkeeper boarded the potter for six months, and charged it

to Palissy, to be paid, like all the other bills, in the future.

Probably Mrs. Palissy did not wish to board the assistant, even had she

possessed the necessary food. At the end of the six months the potter

departed, receiving, as pay, nearly all Palissy's wearing-apparel, which

probably was scarcely worth carrying away.

He now felt obliged to build an improved furnace, tearing down the old

one to recover the bricks, nearly turned to stone by the intense heat.

His hands were fearfully bruised and cut in the work. He begged and

borrowed more money, and once more started his furnace, with the boast

that this time he would draw three or four hundred francs from it. When

the ware was drawn out, the creditors came, eager for their share; but,

alas! there was no share for them. The mortar had been full of flints,

which adhered to the vessels; and Palissy broke the spoiled lot in

pieces. The neighbors called him a fool; the wife joined in the

maledictions--and who could blame her?

Under all this disappointment his spirit gave way, and he fled to his

chamber, and threw himself upon the bed. Six of his children had died

from want during the last ten years of struggle. What agony for the fond

mother! "I was so wasted in person," he quaintly wrote afterwards,

"that there was no form nor prominence of muscle on my arms or legs;

also the said legs were throughout of one size, so that the garters with

which I tied my stockings were at once, when I walked, down upon my

heels, with the stockings too. I was despised and mocked by all."

But the long lane turned at last. He stopped for a year, and took up his

old work to support his dying family, and then perfected his discovery.

For five or six years there were many failures,--the furnaces were too

hot, or the proportions were wrong; but finally the work became very

beautiful. His designs from nature were perfect, and his coloring

marvellous. His fame soon spread abroad; and such nobles as Montmorenci,

who stood next in rank to the King, and counts and barons, were his

patrons. He designed tiles for the finest palaces, ideal heads of the

Saviour, and dainty forms from Greek mythology.

Invited by Catherine de Medicis, wife of King Henry II., Palissy removed

to Paris, and was thenceforward called "Bernard of the Tuileries." He

was now rich and famous. What a change from that day when his

half-starved wife and children fled along the streets of Saintes, their

furniture broken up for furnace-fires! And yet, but for this blind

devotion to a single object, he would have remained a poor, unknown

glass-painter all his life. While in Paris, he published two or three

books which showed wide knowledge of history, mines, springs, metals,

and philosophy. He founded a Museum of Natural History, and for eight

years gave courses of lectures, attended by all the learned men of the

day. When his great learning was commented upon, he replied, "I have had

no other book than the sky and the earth, known to all." A wonderful man


All his life Palissy was a devoted Huguenot, not fearing to read his

Bible, and preach to the people daily from it. Once he was imprisoned at

Bordeaux, and but for his genius, and his necessity to the beautifying

of palaces and chapels, he would have been put to death. When he was

seventy-six, under the brutal Henry III., he was shut up in the

Bastille. After nearly four years, the curled and vain monarch visited

him, and said, "My good man, you have been forty-five years in the

service of the Queen my mother, or in mine, and we have suffered you to

live in your own religion, amidst all the executions and the massacres.

Now, however, I am so pressed by the Guise party and my people, that I

have been compelled, in spite of myself, to imprison these two poor

women and you; they are to be burnt to-morrow, and you also, if you will

not be converted."

"Sire," answered the old man, "you have said several times that you feel

pity for me; but it is I who pity you, who have said, 'I am compelled.'

That is not speaking like a King. These girls and I, who have part in

the kingdom of heaven, we will teach you to talk royally. The Guisarts,

all your people, and yourself, cannot compel a potter to bow down to

images of clay."

The two girls were burnt a few months afterward. The next year, 1589,

Henry III. was stabbed by a monk who knelt before his throne; and the

same year, Palissy died in the Bastille, at the age of eighty.