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“I shall search for a garden where I can retire, and renew my spirit during this time filled with divorces, plagues, epidemics, and those other tribulations with which our present moment is so troubled.” So begins one of the more remarkable sixteenth-century treatises, “The True Recipe” (1563) by Bernard Palissy. (“Recipe” here might also mean “receipt.”) After a long discussion of agricultural fertilizer and the composition of soil and rocks, Palissy outlines the fantastical garden he hopes to build. It is filled with intricate rock formations, odd buildings constructed of tree trunks and polished stone, strange ornamentation, and streams and springs crawling with snakes and toads.

A garden of snakes! Snakes, frogs, lizards, and shellfish are images long associated with Palissy. He became famous for his innovative ceramics, many of which were decorated with enameled live-cast images of these creatures. Having lifted the lettuce from one of his large plates, a diner might find a glittering viper lying at the bottom. His works are found in museums around the world, and his name is attached to the formal method of lead-glazed earthenware he developed. Palissy was an autodidact who, while becoming one of the most prominent designers in the French court, contributed to the still-young sciences of geology and zoology. He was also an ardent Protestant at a time when religious fervor often led to torment. Despite the protection of the Catholic monarch, he suffered more than one imprisonment and finally succumbed to beatings and starvation in the Bastille in 1589.

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