Monday, March 29, 2010

Salamander in Chief

Visitors to François I's chateaux may be surprised to find the castles overrun,
not with tourists,
or school groups,
or preservationists, or
historical re-enactors,
but with...


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)]


Juli D. Revezzo said...

Hi, Julianne, I may be overlooking this, but do you know why Francois I had an obsession with salamanders?

Cafe Pearl
PS. I plugged you in a post this morning. :)

Julianne Douglas said...

Thanks for the plug, Julianne! I'll have to check out the salamander book.

To answer your question, I don't think François had a thing for salamanders so much as a thing for himself! The salamander badge was a way for the king to "mark his territory," so to speak. I don't think I made it clear in the article that devices and emblems were quite the rage during the Renaissance; people enjoyed trying to figure out the relationship between the words and the pictures. Kind of like heraldry for the intellectual.
François adopted the salamander based on the mythology that I described as sort of a pictorial signature he applied to his possessions and the showpieces of his reign.

Other rulers had different emblems. Fr's predecessor, Louis XII, had the porcupine, for example; Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II, used the crescent moon; François's wife Claude used a swan.

Whether Fr was fascinated by real salamanders is anybody's guess. He did, however, consider the mythology that surrounded the creature a fitting description of his kingship.

Andrea Kirkby said...

I'm glad you mentioned the porcupine - he is a superb little beast! (Perhaps Louis XII knew that political joke about the pricks all being on the outside...) At Blois, you can see both the porcupine on the earlier work, and the salamander on the staircase and later buildings - though you can't always date work by the badges, since in the nineteenth century a lot of people seem to have fancied a salamander or two for themselves, particularly on fireplaces and doors.

One quite unusual place you'll find the salamander is Rome, on the church of San Luigi dei Francesi - the church of the French community (and dedicated to a French saint, Louis IX), built in the early 16th century, with the salamanders clearly displayed on the bottom of the facade. Very smart - and a clear heraldic statement of just who the church belonged to, nationality-wise.

Julianne Douglas said...

Andrea, thanks for the info about the church of San Luigi dei Francesi--I'd never heard about it! I'll have to see if I can dig up a photo somewhere.

Alberti's Window said...

I just came across your post after researching why the salamander and elephant were included in the salt cellar that Cellini made for Francis I. Thanks for the information (both from Cellini's autobiography and the historical associations with the creature).

"M" from Alberti's Window

Julianne Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julianne Douglas said...

Glad you found the information useful. Please come back and let us know if you post about the salt cellar!

Historical Dilettante said...

Glad to have found this nice summary. I remember Francois' salamander emblem from other French chateau and IIRC it's even at Fontevraud Abbaye. You've given me an idea for a salamander hunt for my children when we visit Fontainebleau this summer. Merci!

Julianne Douglas said...

De rien! Enjoy your visit to Fontainebleau! Let me know how many salamanders your children count.

MinorSights said...

Just spotted the salamanders in Blous today, and when I started researching them, I came across your helpful piece. Thanks!

Julianne Douglas said...

Thank you, MinorSights! Glad to be of help.

Unknown said...

Hi! I had read somewhere that francois designed the salamander as a kid in his school studies as more like a mythical dragon. A salamander with dragon like scales and breathes fire. But now i can not find it. I love this emblem, i collect many of them!

Julianne Douglas said...

Interesting! It is an awesome emblem, isn't it?

Unknown said...

Glad this page still appears open. I have a question and comment that ties in with Lisa Norton's comment. Why or who termed King Francis I's royal emblem a "salamander?" Nothing could be further from the anatomical truth that it's a salamander, but rather a "fire breathing" dragon, something historically known in multiple writings and eye-witness accounts of that time. Salamanders are most typically small amphibian creatures, NONE of which have scales, claws, dermal frill/plates running down their backs nor the true flesh tearing teeth as we see in King Francis I's "salamander!" How embarrassing a false labeling of a classic royal emblem fitting of a king that hunted such fearsome creatures in the marshes surrounding the planned chateaux of the Loire valley. These creatures were true "dragons," NOT salamanders! RIP, honorable King Francis I. Let not historical or "scientific" revisionism besmirch your esteemed valor and courage.

Julianne Douglas said...

Thank you, Paul, for your interest in Francois I's emblem. I have only ever seen the creature referred to as a salamander. This identification is not a modern revision; contemporary sources patently characterize it as such. For example, I can cite Claude Paradin, who in his Devises heroiques (1557), reproduces the royal salamander with this explanation (translation mine): "The Salamander with flames of fire was the device of the late noble and magnificent King Francois, and before that of his father Charles, Count of Angouleme. Pliny says that this beast by its chill extinguishes fire like ice; others say that it can live in fire; it is commonly said to eat it. A while back I remember having seen a bronze medal of the late King, painted during his adolescence, on the back of which was this device of the flaming salamander, with this Italian motto: I nourish the good and turn off the bad. And otherwise, in many places and royal palaces today it is raised; I have also seen it on a rich tapestry at Fountainbleau, accompanied by this distich: Ursus atrox, Aquilaeque leves, & tortilis Anguis:
Cesserunt flammae iam Salamandrae tuae." I would love to read the eyewitness accounts you cite that refer to it as a fire-breathing dragon. Perhaps both traditions existed side by side. I agree that the images seldom resemble the lowly salamander, but the association of the salamander with fire goes back to Pliny and has deep roots in French folklore as well.

Paradin facsilime may be found at