Though he documented much of his life and work in writing, Palissy kept much of the specifics of his life-casting process secret. Based on the methods of fellow French artisans who also employed this technique, it’s likely that he kept a menagerie of specimens in jars in his workshop. Once it was time to cast a subject, it was customary to dip the creature in vinegar or urine, coat it in a greasy substance, then position it on a bed of plaster, arranged in a striking, lively pose. The final step would have been covering—as in, suffocating—the specimen with additional plaster.
After the plaster was set and dried (and the deceased animal’s body removed), the mold appeared remarkably similar to a fossil, Shell notes. Palissy would press clay into these molds, then carefully attach the resulting figures to his vessels, using needles and palette knives. The finished compositions were then fired and painted with custom glazes Palissy invented—translucent, lead-based substances infused with metallic oxides. They were then fired one final time.
Each work is a sort of microcosm of the natural world, which bears evidence of the barbaric process that brought it to fruition. “Palissy’s ceramic productions compressed both nature and time into clay,” Shell writes. “He brought plates to life by killing nature, burning wood, and cooking earths.”
From the time he perfected his process until his death in 1590, Palissy’s methods, and his compositions, changed very little (many a platter can be found with a squirming snake at its center). Palissy developed a following, his ceramics becoming known as “Rustic Ware” or “Palissy Ware.” Fellow artists began copying his style, and he attracted serious patrons, like Constable Anne de Montmorency in Saintes, who would later introduce him to the queen mother of France, Catherine de Médici.