Thursday, July 26, 2012

A King and his Books: The Libraries of François I

"Roi chevalier" (warrior-king) though he was, François I might just as readily--and appropriately--have claimed the title "Roi lecteur" (reader-king). François's love of books contributed not only to the blossoming of the literary arts in sixteenth century France but to the foundation of the crown jewel of French letters, the Bibliothèque nationale (National Library).

Engraving of an anonymous miniature showing 
Antoine Macault reading his translation of Diodorus Siculus 
to François I and his sons

Educated according to humanist principles, François spent his youth reading the works of the ancients in Latin, as well as poetry and chronicles composed in French. Determined to see his kingdom achieve the intellectual and artistic renown Italy enjoyed, he supported the literary arts once he ascended to the throne, patronizing, among others, the poet Clément Marot and composing some two hundred poems of his own (Knecht, Francis I, 84). So great was François's love of letters that he created the post of lecteur du roi, an attendant whose chief duty was to read aloud to the king, particularly at mealtimes. Whenever François traveled, two chests filled with works of Roman history and French romances accompanied him.

François loved to collect books and manuscripts as much as to read them. Initially, he housed his books in a library at the château de Blois. Antonio De Beatis described this library in 1517:

[I]n the castle, or rather palace, we saw a library consisting of a sizeable room not only furnished with shelves from end to end but also lined with book-cases from floor to ceiling, and literally packed with books--to say nothing of those put away in chests in an inner room. These books are all of parchment, handwritten in beautiful lettering and bound in silk of various colours, with elaborate locks and clasps of gilt [quoted in Knecht, Renaissance Warrior and Patron, 471-72].

In 1518, the Blois collection included 1,626 volumes, of which forty-one were in Greek, four in Hebrew and two in Arabic. Throughout his reign, François expanded these holdings, commissioning agents to travel to Italy and the Near East to seek out and purchase rare books and instructing his diplomats to buy or copy all the Greek manuscripts they could find.

After the death of his wife Queen Claude in 1524, François began to assemble a second library at the château de Fontainebleau. He dedicated the third floor of his private wing, directly above the famed gallery decorated by the Italian artist Rosso Fiorentino and the bathing suite, to this library. In 1544, François moved the entire Blois collection, now numbering 1,890 items, to Fontainebleau, combining them with the few hundred books and manuscripts already there.

Library at Fontainebleau. 
Photo credit: Sébastien Bouthillette

Contemporaries marveled at the magnificence of the library's decoration, the quality and rarity of its holdings, and the hospitality with which visiting scholars were welcomed to consult them.

Even as François acquired Latin and Greek manuscripts, the printing industry flourished in France. In order to keep up with the flow of books spilling off presses at home and abroad, the king issued the Ordinance of Montpellier in December 1537. This royal decree ordered all printers and booksellers to deposit with the royal library a copy of any printed book put on sale in the kingdom. Although it does not appear to have been strictly enforced, the Montpellier ordinance is considered to be the first law of legal deposit enacted anywhere.

In 1567, some twenty years after François's death, the royal library, now consisting of 3,650 titles, was brought to Paris, where it became the nucleus of the Bibliothèque nationale. Ultimately, the books François loved and collected nourished the intellectual curiosity of an entire nation, for generations.

A. Franklin, Précis de l'histoire de la Bibliothèque du roi, aujourd'hui Bibliothèque nationale (Paris, 1875).
R. J. Knecht, Francis I (Cambridge UP, 1984)
----,  Renaissance Warrior and Patron: The Reign of Francis I (Cambridge UP, 1994)


Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Roi Chevalier does not mean just warrior king, it means knight-and-king. And knight does not just mean "stern in battle" according to C S Lewis' famous essay, it also means "meek in hall".

Julianne Douglas said...

Thank you for pointing that out. And what better way to be "meek in hall" than to spend the time reading? :)

Trish said...

Please see my reference to your excellent article here: Thank you!

Julianne Douglas said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed the article, Patricia! If I remember correctly, the library is not open to the public, as the floor is considered unsafe pending renovation.