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Francis the First of France: Le Roi Chevalier

J.H.M. Salmon introduces a Machiavellian despot, as well as the gallant leader of a gay and brilliant court. Francis had the good fortune to embody the aspirations of France in his own ambition.

“Maganime, débonnaire, libéral, de grand esprit, de jugement sain et net, de mémoire très heureuse: amateur des bonnes lettres et des hommes de mérite.”

This was the reputation acquired by Francis the First in his own time and reverently preserved by subsequent generations. His mother, Louise of Savoy, laid its foundation even before it was certain that he would inherit the throne of his second cousin, Louis XII. In 1504 she had a medallion engraved in honour of the ten-year-old Duke of Valois, bearing his image on the face, and on the reverse a fiery salamander with the words: “Notrisco al buono; stingo el reo.”2 In retrospect the device has seemed appropriate to le roi chevalier, and the emblem a fitting one for the King who survived the crises and disasters of his reign as miraculously as the salamander writhed unscathed amid the surrounding flames.

While Francis I has been remembered as the chivalrous leader who sustained a long and unequal struggle against the Hapsburg Emperor, Charles V, he has also been described as the King of the Renaissance. He was the patron of the arts who installed Leonardo da Vinci in the manor of Clos-Lucé beside the chateau of Amboise, and who imported the grace of Rosso and Primaticcio. He was the builder of Fontainebleau, Chambord and Villers-Cotterets. He was the protector of learning who appointed the great Hellenist Guillaume Bude as the master of his library, and commissioned his ambassadors to procure the books and manuscripts that filled its shelves. He was the founder of the Collège de France, at the instigation of Bude and Jean du Bellay.

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