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Renaissance curiosity in microcosm

Follower of Bernard Palissy, platter, last quarter of the 16th century, lead-glazed earthenware, 52.1 x 39.7 x 7.1 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), an Expanded Renaissance Initiative video speakers: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(upbeat music) - [Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank] We're in the galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at an object that dates to the time of the Renaissance in France. And we're looking at a platter that you wouldn't wanna eat off of. - [Dr. Beth Harris] This is a platter by a follower of Bernard Palissy, and it is this incredible dish that is showing us essentially a microcosm of a pond. - [Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank] By microcosm we're talking about an environment, a world, but in miniature. - [Dr. Beth Harris] We see lizards, you see a frog, a crawfish or a lobster, snakes, shells. And we see all these different plants that you would find at a pond. - [Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank] As we look at these living forms, they look incredibly lifelike and that's because he cast these from life. We know that Renaissance thinkers were interested in studying nature and trying to understand the laws of nature. This is so true of the 16th century, a period that we often refer to as the scientific revolution. - [Dr. Beth Harris] Bernard Palissy, who is the inventor of this type of ceramic, it's what he called rustic pottery. He was truly a Renaissance man. He dabbled in geology, he was a botanist. He was someone who was very interested in collecting. He had a cabinet of curiosities. He was also a painter, he did stained glass. And here we have ceramics. Supposedly how he invented this particular type of rustic pottery was that he initially wanted to master making refined pottery. He was not able to master it and through much trial and error developed this specialized technique. - [Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank] And so what he did was he would collect specimens and that includes the shells as well as the living organisms. And you would create a cast from them from plaster. He would stun the animals just before creating the cast by immersing the animals in urine or vinegar and then he would create a plaster cast around them. First coating them in oil, I guess, so they could be removed from the cast. He would pose them carefully in the plaster to make sure that the movement of the animal imitated their movement in life. Not only does the snake really look like a snake in terms of its scales, but also its movement. - [Dr. Beth Harris] And Palissy was especially interested in the pond environment. In the Renaissance people became fascinated by the idea of the pond as a space or a place of life, but also putrefaction. So you have this concept of life and dying and death, and he would collect these specimens using different nets that he collected. And sometimes at great risk, some of these snakes are vipers and some of the frogs and things were venomous. He would collect them live, bring them back to his workshop. The process of making these, he himself as like a scientist, he's a collector of these specimens. The ceramic itself is like a microcosm of the pond that is encapsulating this environment like a cabinet of curiosity, but the very process that he uses to create the forms that we're seeing are in and of themselves as part of this scientific revolution. - [Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank] This is the time of Galileo. This is the time of Kepler and Copernicus soon after. We're at this time of incredible curiosity about the natural world and how it works. And Palissy is theorizing about that. He's not just a ceramicist, he's thinking about how does life emerge from the pond? How does life transform into a fossil? These are things that early scientists were working very hard to understand. - [Dr. Beth Harris] In cabinets of curiosity from the Renaissance, you have a lot of naturalia, or these natural specimens collected from different parts of the world and put on display. So that collecting impulse, that scientific impulse, they're all involved here in the making of this particular dish. Even the glazes he uses are adding to this interesting dynamic, because as a hallmark of Renaissance art, we have this incredible naturalism, these animals that have been cast, but then we also have the glazes that are adding to that naturalism. - [Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank] And what we have here is this shoreline with an island in the center of the water and in the center of that island, this writhing snake. The plate itself feels encrusted. It's so easy to forget that we're looking at pottery. It feels like fossilized animals. It feels like stone. It looks like water. You can see he's used a very fine tool to create what looked like waves in the water, around the stone. - [Dr. Beth Harris] And because these things were cast from life, we can see the scales on the snake and we can see all these different textures. But then he's also given us in the background, these really animated textures as well. There's a looser glazing on the background of the plate to give the impression of water or a watery environment. So there is a sense of the transforming of the natural environment happening before our eyes of forms that are moving and shifting. - [Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank] Palissy himself is a really fascinating artist of the time, not only did he become incredibly famous for this technique, he had many followers of which this artist is one, but he himself was a Protestant living in Catholic France. But because he was so exceptional as this Renaissance man who was involved in so many things, he was protected by his patrons. And in fact, he had two very well known female patrons. One of whom was Catherine de'Medici. - [Dr. Beth Harris] And in fact, he made a grotto for Catherine de'Medici and the Tuileries in Paris. - [Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank] Partially he got that commission because of his fame surrounding his interest in natural science, natural history, in ceramics, and other types of art making. - [Dr. Beth Harris] So we have to think about this idea in the Renaissance of artists who are also thinking about themselves as scientists. Think about the great artists of the Renaissance, of Michelangelo, of Leonardo, of these artists studying human anatomy, dissecting human bodies, dissecting animals, learning about the world through visual observation. But also through understanding that comes through creating something, that comes through making. - [Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank] This is not only a microcosm of a pond, but we could even argue that in some ways this platter functions as a microcosm of Renaissance artists and Renaissance art. - [Dr. Beth Harris] And yet here we are not in Italy, but in France. And we're looking not at a painting or a sculpture, but at a piece of earthenware. (upbeat music)