BrooklynFans Of Books: “Francis I,” A Look At An Enlightened Ruler

Francis I: The Maker Of Modern France

By Leonie Frieda

Harper, available April 10th, $29.99

Leonie Frieda has applied her customarily rigorous scholarship, fresh insights and narrative power in her new work, Francis I: The Maker Of Modern France.

This is a companion to her internationally bestselling Catherine de Medici, who was Francis I’ s daughter-in-law.

Francis I was integral to to bringing the Renaissance to France, with his patronage of both Italian masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, and home-grown artists, writers, and scientists as well.

On the genesis of Francis I, Frieda says, “For as long as I can remember, Francis I existed for me as a primary figure, a king from the first ranks of history, but one about whom I had only scant knowledge. I learned about him largely as a counter-point to figures such as Henry VII of England. Once I had been to school in France, I understood that he had been a great patron of the arts and oft referred to as a cultural force.

“My desire and eventually my passion to learn about the King of France people referred to as The Renaissance King of France, The Warrior King, The Father of French Letters, The First Gentleman of France, arose when I began my research into the life of Catherine de Medici…I began to discover where Francis stood in the history of Early Modern Europe, although the almost inestimable role he had played in creating France, even as she is perceived today, had yet to fully dawn upon me…Once I had finished Catherine de Medici, I could take a step back, and for the first time I saw how the young prince melded a nation.”

This work is possibly the deepest on Francis I because Frieda had access to never before used private archives, and she includes maps of France the Holy Roman Empire, and the Italian Peninsula, as well  as genealogical tables of the House of Valois, including the Valois Orleans, Bourbon-Montpensier, and senior lines; and The House of Trastamara/Habsburg.

Frieda wrote her book on Francis with a blended mix of entertaining storytelling and historical research which made it accessible and engaging.

An idealist at heart, Francis I was the quintessential Frechman whose character served as the template for the national identity that still survives today. He sometimes failed to live up to his ideals in his roles as husband, father, lover, and king.

Frieda writes of how Francis ruled, “His aesthetic and artistic interests, again inspired by his mother, were genuine, and resulted in some of the most remarkable architecture, paintings, and sculpture that his country had ever known. These remain an indisputable¬† testament to him today. He wished to be a true Renaissance monarch in a way that his predecessors had not been, and the glorification of his own image through magnificent chateaux and splendid entertainments, exquisite and short-lived though they were, showed him to be unusually aware of the power of public manipulation. These great palaces included Fontainebleau,the inimitable Chambord and the refurbishment of the Louvre in Paris, which were worked upon by the likes of Primaticcio, Philibert de l’Orme and Giulio Romano.

“Francis would rule as an absolute monarch, but he wanted to be loved and admired by his subjects; he made a point of travelling throughout the kingdom, showing himself to them. These royal progresses rarely comprised fewer than 10,000 people, with twice as many animals. The total expenditure was dramatic, costing both the locale visited and the nobles and royal exchequer a fortune. Although his final achievements did not match up to his giddy aims, few could have competed with him for showmanship. If his recruitment of an aged Leonardo da Vinci did not produce the late masterpiece that Francis had hoped for, it nonetheless proved to be a remarkable coup in terms of establishing his own credentials as a cultural patron for the nation. When da Vinci brought the Mona Lisa to France with him in 1516 it represented the imprimatur of the new French dominance of the international cultural scene. While an attempt to do the same with Cellini later in his reign was less successful, it had more to do with the growing factionalism at court, and the goldsmith’s refusal to curry favour, then misplaced appreciation for talent.

“Francis knew he was a great bluffer, rather than a great thinker. He surrounded himself with people more intelligent and adept than himself, and this paid dividends. Tellingly, most of the major failures of his reign took place when he placed an inappropriate faith in his own judgment and intelligence. His mother’s death in 1531 can therefore be seen as a clear demarcation between his major achievements prior to it and the many blunders that occurred afterwards. Like many a little boy who has never quite grown up, it proved to be entirely true of Francis that ‘Mummy knew best.’ She gave him sound counsel, and when he ignored it the consequences were almost invariably regrettable. Yet when he did listen to her, or heeded his sister’s advice later in life, he acted with a Machiavellian skill that put his peers to shame with his decisive and ineffective results.

“He was the king that his country needed, if not the one that it might have wished for. In an age in which European relations were characterized by the emergence of great nations from small independent states, his cheerily forthright attitude towards the expansion of French territories overseas came at precisely the right time. A century before, he would have faced a near-endless number of local magnates and powerful prelates, meaning that, whatever small conquests he managed, he would have had no scope to develop the glory of France. If his people had an ambivalent attitude towards their king, especially later in his reign, greater civil disobedience was checked by their knowledge that he acted in both their interest and his own, which he considered one and the same.

“An intriguingly magnetic and contradictory figure emerges from a modern assessment of Francis. Perhaps the best point of comparison is with his contemporary and occasional ally-cum-enemy Henry VIII. Both men occupy an important symbolic position in their country’s history, but for entirely different reasons. While Henry’s influence was a destructive one, Francis furthered the glory of his kingdom. As Henry posed as a Renaissance man but without substance, Francis devoted his time and energy to the arts and to creativity. As men, their differences were as striking as their similarities. Despite his substantial nose, Francis was a handsome and dashing figure, as Henry had been in his youth, but the French monarch’s acknowledged charm and accessibility endeared him to many. It was no wonder that he managed to seduce women, just as the blunter and more belligerent Henry executed them. Francis led his armies from the front, literally fighting until he was unable to do so any more; Henry’s most notable military entanglement was the pointless accidental destruction of his flagship. It is not a comparison from which the English monarch emerges with any credit.”

This book is a must for lovers of history, as Frieda provides a complex look into a leader who remains elusive despite being one of the most recognizable monarchs of the Renaissance period.

 

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