A Father’s Love: Catherine de Medici and François I
by C. W. Gortner
“I had loved François as I had loved no other man; loved him for his excesses and his foibles, for his grandeur and his weakness; but most of all, I had loved him because he had loved me. But I did not cry, not a single tear. I now had a purpose, nebulous as it might be: I would be queen. I could almost hear François laughing, his spirit alive, full of mirth at what we’d contrived to achieve. I knew then that he would never truly die; it was his final gift, one that he had ensured I would carry for the rest of my days.
In me, he had bequeathed his immortal love of France.”
— Excerpt from THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI © C.W. Gortner 2010.
Among the many misconceptions about Catherine de Medici, surely one of the saddest is that she was an amoral woman without a heart, who ruthlessly eliminated anyone who stood in her way. Some even went so far as to say, she did not know how to love.
However, it is not too surprising, given her background and the unfortunate circumstances in which she rose to power. In truth, Catherine has been the target of a smear campaign that began in her lifetime; of Italian birth, she came to France while a teenager to wed King François I’s second son, who later became Henri II. She was used as a pawn in an elaborate stratagem between François and Catherine’s uncle, Pope Clement VII, each of whom sought revenge against the Hapsburg emperor, Charles V. Catherine claimed noble French blood through her mother but this was secondary to the overriding xenophobia that many Frenchmen held toward Italians. The venal corruption of Rome, coupled with France’s incessant incursions to claim Milan—a chimerical obsession that wreaked havoc on both lands—had conspired to create a court that paid outward homage to the art of Italy while privately disregarding the country as anything other than a lost possession. François himself yearned to own Italy to such an extent that most of his artistic pursuits were centered on recreating the brilliance of that country’s Renaissance in his immediate environment. He imported Italian artists, including Leonardo da Vinci; what he could not import, he bartered for, stole, or paid outrageous sums to own.
Catherine was one of his finest acquisitions. Bought along with the promise of several Italian duchies, she was never considered French; her paternal ancestry as a Medici, a banking family that had made its fortune in commerce and the papacy, branded her a parvenu. Prejudice against her because of her nationality haunted her throughout her life. Italians were despised as Machiavellian experts in intrigue and the black arts; Catherine’s natural inclination toward her fellow countrymen was thus often used against her and helped seed her black legend. And when her uncle Clement VII died without releasing the duchies promised to François in her dowry, the king was said to mutter about his then-barren daughter-in-law: “I took her naked as a babe.”
Rumor ran like wildfire that François would annul his son’s marriage to Catherine and banish her. History tells us, she herself fell to her knees before the king to implore mercy, even as she acknowledged her unworthiness. Whether or not he ever intended to rid himself of her cannot be known; what is certain is that François protected Catherine for years afterwards, until she managed to bear Henri the all-important son required of her. And in those years, she and François developed a love that mirrored that of a beloved father and his daughter, a relationship that dominated Catherine’s youth, seeing as she’d never known parental love, having lost both her parents while still a babe.
François and Catherine shared more than a mutual adoration for Italy; in Catherine, François found the personification of everything he most admired about that patchwork nation of city states which had eluded his capture. She had spirit and grace; and, if not a beauty in the traditional sense, she had more important qualities for her king: she was superbly well educated in the Italian Renaissance style, literate in several languages, with an innate passion for art. Whether it was painting, architecture, sculpture, or writing, Catherine’s fine-tuned sensibilities proved perfect fodder for François’s extravagances. He often consulted her on his plans for refurbishment of his many chateaux –– he was forever remodeling — and whenever a new artist from Italy made it to his court — and they came by the hundreds, lured by his generosity and addiction to novelty — he had Catherine greet them first. Official court documents of the time are peppered with references to an aspiring artist making his way into the king’s pocket through the ‘good graces of Madame la Dauphine.’ Indeed, with her keen appreciation for the arts and keener sense of patronage, Catherine was an ideal mechanism for obtaining royal approval to set up shop. And besides childbearing, here was one area where she could excel –– even as she battled the private specter of Diane de Poitiers, her husband’s lifelong mistress who would soon overshadow her years as queen.
François’s death in 1547 devastated Catherine. She was twenty-eight; the king only fifty-two. He’d battled illness for years, the result of a lifetime of profligate indiscretion, so his death did not come as a surprise. But he had been her champion, her guardian and mentor for sixteen years. She had worked hard to win his favor and in return he rewarded her with that singular affection and loyalty for which he is famous. While Henry VIII comes down to us as a tyrant in a perpetual bad humor, François has been enshrined as the personification of bonhomie, always with an eye for a pretty blueprint, a pretty painting, and a pretty smile.
And through him, Catherine learned an invaluable lesson that she plied, often relentlessly, throughout her life: When in doubt, throw a party. For those who eat well at your table are less likely to stab you in the back.
Thank you so much for spending this time with me. To find out more about THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI, as well as special features about me and my work, please visit: www.cwgortner.com.
Thank you, Christopher, for this touching and informative post. I love the way you show how Catherine symbolized for François the Italy he coveted yet never managed to obtain. And what I wouldn't give to attend one of Catherine's parties!
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