Tuesday, September 12, 2017

King François I, "Père des arts, des armes et des lois"

Bon vivant. Ladies' man. Humanist scholar. Patron of the arts. Warrior. King.

In true Renaissance fashion, François I of France, born this day in 1497, was all those things and more. Guided by a single dream--to make of France a new Italy, a center of art and culture as well as commerce--François expanded the intellectual and geographical boundaries of France, transforming the medieval kingdom into a modern state that vied with England and Spain for dominance over the European continent and the New World.

And he certainly had a good time doing so.

Scion of a minor branch of the Valois line, François was never expected to become king. His son-less cousin Louis XII named him heir presumptive in 1498. In 1514, François married Louis's only daughter, Claude; the couple ascended the throne the next year, the start of a thirty-two year reign. After Claude died in 1524, having given birth to seven children in nine years, François married Eleanor of Austria, sister of Emperor Charles V. Throughout his second marriage, Anne d'Heilly, Duchess d'Étampes, wielded power at court and over François's heart as his official mistress. François died of illness in 1547 on the twenty-eighth birthday of his son and successor, Henri II.

Jovial, athletic, and charming, François fostered chivalric ideals at a court that soon became known for its culture and sophistication. He loved to hunt and wrestle, and recreated the glory of his early military victories in Italy in frequent jousts and tournaments. His need for physical activity--both sportive and amorous--vied with his ardent intellectual curiosity. Having espoused the humanist ideals to which his tutors exposed him, François supported writers and scholars in many disciplines and invited them to court to discuss their work. He avidly collected books and manuscripts, amassing what would serve as the seed kernel of France's eventual national library.

François nurtured a similar passion for art and architecture. He invited prominent Italian artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and Rosso Fiorentino, as well as skilled artisans and craftsmen, to France. Together, these gifted men constructed and beautified the many châteaux that dotted the kingdom, transforming dreary fortifications and decrepit hunting lodges into dazzling pleasure palaces. François collected works of art like he did books, sending agents into Italy to purchase or copy works and displaying in his châteaux canvasses and statues sent to him as gifts or produced by the artists he supported.

Politically, François solidified the evolving concept of the absolute monarch and pursued the formation of a nation-state. Throughout his reign, he defended France against the designs of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain. Bitter rivals since Charles narrowly beat him out for the elected position, the two became sworn enemies once Charles's forces captured François at the battle of Pavia in Italy in 1525. The French king spent a year in Spain as Charles's prisoner, and was only released in exchange for his two sons and his marriage to Charles's sister Eléanor. After several years, François raised the money to ransom his sons, their relationship with him forever damaged by the grueling separation. In his perpetual effort to thwart Charles, François made alliances with Henry VIII of England and Suleiman, sultan of the Ottoman empire. He was still engaged in battle with Charles at the time of his death.

François I both fostered and personified the fruits of Renaissance endeavor. With unbounded energy and relentless enthusiasm, he led his kingdom on a voyage of discovery and smoothed the rougher edges of late medieval culture into a close facsimile of the Italian splendor he so admired. If France was the "mother of arts, arms, and laws," as the poet Joachim du Bellay would soon describe her, François I was their uncontested father.

Happy Birthday, sire!

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