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)]

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Humility does not disturb or disquiet, however great it may be; it comes with peace, delight and calm. . . .The pain of genuine humility doesn't agitate or afflict the soul; rather, this humility expands it and enables it to serve God more."

Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), Spanish nun, writer and saint
The Way of Perfection (1566), Chapter 39, Section 2

Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Illuminated Manuscript Collection for Sale

Another item to spend your spare change on: an illuminated Book of Hours created for the personal use of François I, included in a collection of manuscripts Christie's will be offering for sale this July.

The BBC article about the sale features a photograph of the prayerbook. Although I can't zoom in close or clearly enough to be sure, it looks as though the kneeling man might be a portrait of François himself. In any case, the photograph gives a wonderful view of the intricate artistry of the illumination, as well as the size of the book in relation to the man's hands. The book is expected to sell for about $1,000,000 (500,000 pounds).

Other works in the collection can be viewed here, here, and here. The squirrel on the stand [scroll to the middle set of photos] is precious (although one feels a bit sad for the poor creature).

I must admit that seeing exquisite manuscripts like these make me rue the advent of the printing press just a bit.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Catherine Delors: For the King trailer

My friend and fellow historical novelist Catherine Delors, author of the acclaimed Mistress of the Revolution, has a new book coming out this July : For the King, a thriller set in Napoleonic Paris. Catherine just posted the link to a marvelous trailer for the new novel. Go watch, and be sure to mark your calendars for the release of For the King on July 8, 2010!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"How praiseworthy it is for a prince to keep his word and live by honesty and not deceit, everyone knows; nevertheless we see, by what goes on in our own times, that those princes who have accomplished great things are the ones who had cared little for keeping promises and who knew how to manipulate the minds of men with shrewdness; and in the end they won out over those who founded themselves on loyalty."

-- Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), Italian philosopher and writer
The Prince (1532)
Ch. XVIII, "How a Prince Should Keep His Word"

Translated by Mark Musa.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Fifteen Minutes to Spare

The sale of the Vasari documents which I related here was called off fifteen minutes before the auction was scheduled to begin. Lawyers for the owner obstructed the sale, claiming the papers were being sold too cheaply. A judge must now decide whether a higher starting price is justified. More details here from the BBC.

Note: If you're thinking of bidding, Italy's culture minister has ordered that the papers cannot be removed from Vasari's former home in Tuscany. So maybe you'd better plan on buying the house, too!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Tu es miserable si par ta seule paincture tu attire a toy mary ou autre, quant le fard sera passe, comme luy pourras tu complaire?"

"You are unfortunate if solely by your make-up you attract yourself a husband or anyone else, for when the paint wears off, how can you please him?"

Juan Luis Vives, Spanish humanist and philosopher (1492-1540)
Livre tres bon plaisant et salutaire de L'institution de la femme chrestienne, tant en son enfance, que mariage & viduite
[A very pleasing and salutary book on the education of the Christian woman, in her childhood as well and marriage and widowhood].
Translated into French by Pierre de Changy, 1543.

[Translation mine.]

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Excerpt: The Nose of a King

From my work-in-progress:

We had almost reached the end of the gallery when the king pulled to a stop so suddenly I almost bumped into him. “And here we are. Mademoiselle, your elephant.”

I followed the sweep of his arm. Above my head in the second to the last bay loomed a most fantastical creature. It towered over the human figures in the painting, filling almost half the frame with its bulk. Its round body perched on four straight legs, thick as marble columns. From its head, which seemed too small for a creature of that size, drooped a long, rope-like nose that brushed the ground—the trunk, my father used to call it in his fantastical stories. Two sharp horns, longer than a man’s arm, pierced the face at the base of this trunk; large ears, limp as linen sheets, hung on either side of the face like a wimple. The one visible eye, a mere slit in the gray-white skin, seemed fixed on some inner vista, as if the creature, accustomed to the astounded gazes of onlookers, tolerated the assault with a detachment born of long experience. A gold-tooled caparison, decorated with fleurs-de-lis and a monogrammed “F”, covered the elephant’s back; strapped to its broad brow, a medal portraying the likeness of a salamander sprouted three plumes that curled about the giant’s head like a crown. Symbols representing the elements lay at the creature’s feet: the world subject to its imposing authority.

“The elephant, figure of wisdom and royalty. I’d like to believe the likeness rests in the sagacity of our gazes, but I suspect it has more to do with the length of our noses.” The king formed his thumb and forefinger into an L and fit it to the center of his face.

“Magnificent,” I breathed, hardly believing such an animal existed.

The king burst out laughing. “My nose or the elephant? Your candor refreshes like a cooling draught, mademoiselle.” The pealing of the chapel bell interrupted him, and he frowned as he counted the hour. “I’d intended to watch you work, but I’ve spent far too much time talking as it is. I have greatly enjoyed your company, and must chide your father for hiding you away.”

I dropped a low curtsey, my tongue tripping over itself as I attempted to thank him for the singular favor of this visit.

“Only the first of many,” he promised, extending a hand to help me rise, “provided you tame the elephant. Leave the sketch on the table on your way out.” With a wink, he turned and headed for the far door. The splendor of the gallery seemed to fade with each of his steps as he passed back through it.

(Copyright 2010)

[Photograph: Rosso Fiorentino, The Elephant (1536-39). Fresco and stucco. Fontainebleau: Galerie François I. A short description of the painting may be read at the château's website.]

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Vasari Correspondence for Sale

Anyone with a few million Euros to spare, don't miss the auction that will be taking place this week in the Tuscan city of Arezzo.

As The Guardian reports, the archive of artist Georgio Vasari (1511-1574), who chronicled the lives of Renaissance painters and sculptors in his book Lives of the Artists, will be auctioned off by his hometown. The cache of letters includes 17 from Vasari's friend Michelangelo, as well as letters from five Renaissance popes and Cosimo I de' Medici, the ruler of Florence. Government debt collectors are selling the archive in order to raise money to cover taxes owed by the noble family that has owned the collection for generations. The bidding will start at a mere 2.6 million Euros.

I first became familiar with Vasari's work when I began researching the life of Rosso Fiorentino, the Florentine artist who came to France at François I's behest to decorate the palace of Fontainebleau. Rosso is one of the 130-odd artists whose lives are described in Vasari's Le Vite de' piú eccellenti pittori, scultore et architetti, first published in 1550 (English translation here). An accomplished artist and architect himself, Vasari trained with or befriended many Florentine artists, among them Andrea del Sarto, Rosso, Jacopo Pontormo, and Michelangelo. His book, dedicated to Cosimo de' Medici, presents short biographies of the artists working in Italy, mostly in and around Florence, in the sixteenth century. These biographies are amusing mixtures of fact, personal anecdote, and pure gossip. The book includes a treatise on the technical methods of the times and is considered a classic work of art history.

Rosso's biography, for example, includes an anecdote about his pet monkey stealing grapes from a monastery, a description of the artist's ill-treatment at the hands of the Germans during the sack of Rome in 1527, and speculation about his apparent guilt-induced suicide in 1541...all of which is finding its way into my novel in some form or another. I owe Vasari a great deal, especially for animating his portrait of Rosso with enough personal detail to bring the artist's personality to life, yet leaving enough room for fictional elaboration.

Vasari's hometown of Arezzo will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the chronicler's birthday next year. I certainly hope the Italian heritage minister, who will be competing in the week's auction, will be able to purchase the documents and keep this important part of Italy's artistic heritage in the country.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"[I]l est assez, voyre trop de volumes
Tant d'imprimez que d'escriptz par les
Et que plus font de livres que lecteurs,
Plus de lecteurs, que vertueux facteurs,
Plus d'escripvains & plus de bien disantz,
Que d'auditeurs & que de bien faisantz,
Cella pensant ma main qui estoit preste
Pour commencer à escrire, s'arreste..."

"There are enough, nay, too many tomes
Printed as well as penned by quill,
There are more books than readers,
More readers than virtuous makers,
More writers and silver-tongued speakers
Than listeners and doers of good.
Thinking this, my hand which was ready
To begin to write, stopped..."

Gilles Corrozet (1510-1568), writer and publisher

[Translation mine]