Five centuries after the beginning of his reign (1515-47), François I is remembered as an enlightened monarch, a man of letters and patron of the arts who imported great Renaissance arts and artists, among them Leonardo da Vinci, to France from Italy; built the Château de Chambord; and beautifully restored and redecorated many other French châteaux, most notably Fontainebleau. As one of the curators of the current exhibition, “Le Siècle de François Ier” at the Domaine de Chantilly puts it, he “set the stage for the cultural fireworks of the reign of Louis XIV.”But that pleasing image is not the whole story. The exhibition demonstrates to what point François I’s career provides an early example of successful image building and rebranding. Before becoming known as the pacific king of culture, he was a warrior king famed for victory at the battle of Marignano in 1515, which brought the city-state of Milan under French control (the king lost it again a few years later), but then suffered an ignominious defeat at Pavia during the Four Years’ War a decade later and was captured by his enemies, who held him captive in Madrid for over a year.
After this humiliation and his repudiation of the treaty he had signed to bargain for his release, François, driven by his hatred of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, continued to fight his enemies, but without many new successes. Luckily for his legacy, he then turned his formidable energy to arts and letters.
The exhibition opens with a series of portraits of the king at different ages by court painter Jean Clouet and later his son François Clouet. The standardized three-quarter view of his face makes it amply clear why this giant of a king (he was 6 feet, 6 inches tall) was nicknamed “Gros Nez” (big nose).
Some of the women in his life, including his sister, Marguerite d’Angoulême (later Marguerite de Navarre, who sported a nose almost as long as his), two of his wives and one of his mistresses, merit a portrait gallery of their own.
François’s military career is commemorated most notably by a spectacular monumental tapestry depicting the Battle of Zama, from a series of 10 panels on “The History of Scipio,” in which the turbulence of battle is depicted with astonishing clarity in spite of the multitude of figures shown: fighting and dying soldiers, horses, archers in boxes carried by elephants and so on. This piece is a twin of one that belonged to François I (all the tapestries that actually belonged to him have disappeared).
Much of the rest of the show is devoted to the king’s contribution to the literary world, with some magnificent illuminated manuscripts, many examples of the art of bookbinding and a collection of books published during his reign, including Pantagruel by François Rabelais.
While François I supported the use of that newfangled technology, printing, to make books more readily available, he was by no means the king of freedom of expression, however, having jailed and even executed authors whose works displeased him.
The second half of the show will be of more interest to bibliophiles (Chantilly’s collection of books belonging to François is second only to that of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France) than to art lovers, but it provides an interesting take on a king who was neither entirely bellicose nor entirely enlightened, but both in a big way.