Visitors to François I's chateaux may be surprised to find the castles overrun,
not with tourists,
or school groups,
or preservationists, or
Photo by Alain Dutrevis.
Chambord, for example, has more than eight hundred different types of salamanders carved into the ceiling of the main hall. The François I wing at Blois has eleven salamanders sculpted in high relief across the façade. The grande galerie at Fontainebleau features salamanders carved upon the gilded wainscoting, modeled in stucco atop picture frames, and incised into the backs of chairs. A salamander even decorates the forehead of the gallery's famous elephant (see the photograph a few posts back). Salamanders adorn fireplaces in many of the palaces. The salamanders on François's buildings recline on a bed of fire or spew forth flames from their mouths.
If you aren't aware of the rich symbolism surrounding the salamander, stretching back to the writings of Pliny and Aristotle, you might assume François was a closet herpetologist. The ancients erroneously believed that the salamander had the ability to live in fire without being consumed and to extinguish flames with the coldness of their bodies. Capitalizing on this tradition, François coupled a picture of the salamander in flames with the short motto "Nutrisco et extinguo," "I nourish and I extinguish," to create his official emblem.
Photo by Myrabella.
This emblem can be read as a symbol of virtue that conquers the fires of passion or of strength that triumphs over the vicissitudes of circumstance. For the Neoplatonists of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, fire was considered both good and bad; it ignited believers even as it consumed the damned. Read in this light, the emblem describes a king nourished by the "good fire" of faith, peace and love, who strives to extinguish the "bad fire" of injustice, greed and disordered passions.
François applied the badge to the buildings he constructed or modified; members of the nobility often applied the salamander to their own homes to date construction undertaken during François's reign. On royal edifices, the salamander sports a crown, or a crown floats above the badge; on non-royal houses, the beast's head is bare.
Salamanders appear not only on buildings, but on many royal possessions. Salamanders were tooled into the leather covers of books bound for the royal library. A perfume-burner designed by Raphael for the king had salamanders and fleurs-de-lis on the lid. The creatures were embroidered on royal livery; at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the king's guard were clothed in blue and yellow emblazoned with salamanders. A culverin captured captured by the Ottomans at the Siege of Rhodes in 1522 had a crowned salamander cast on its barrel.
Photo by PHGCOM.
Interestingly enough, the myth of the salamander surviving through fire may have some basis in fact. Salamanders often hibernate in logs; when the logs are put on the fire, the creatures mysteriously "appear" in the flames. The artist Cellini tells the story of witnessing this very event as a child:
When I was about five years old my father happened to be in a basement-chamber of our house, where they had been washing, and where a good fire of oak-logs was still burning; he had a viol in his hand, and was playing and singing alone beside the fire. The weather was very cold. Happening to look into the fire, he spied in the middle of those most burning flames a little creature like a lizard, which was sporting in the core of the intensest coals. Becoming instantly aware of what the thing was, he had my sister and me called, and pointing it out to us children, gave me a great box on the ears, which caused me to howl and weep with all my might. Then he pacified me good-humouredly, and spoke as follows: “My dear little boy, I am not striking you for any wrong that you have done, but only to make you remember that that lizard which you see in the fire is a salamander, a creature which has never been seen before by any one of whom we have credible information.” So saying, he kissed me and gave me some pieces of money. [Autobiography (1566), Ch.4, translated by John Addington Symonds; Project Gutenberg]
With clever flair, François I left his mark on the architectural and cultural achievements of his reign. Even today, the department of Loir-et-Cher, which covers the traditional provinces of Orléans and Touraine where many of François's châteaux stand, proudly displays a salamander on its flag.
No need to call in an exterminator. Good thing, for salamanders are pretty indestructible.
R.J. Knecht, Renaissance Warrior and Patron (1994)
F. M. Simpson, A History of Architectural Development (1913)
W.L. Wiley, The Gentlemen of Renaissance France (1954)]