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François I

The builder king

In 2005 the Loire Valley celebrated 500 years of since the accession to the throne of François I, king, builder and protector of the arts and letters

Portrait of François I by Pierre Dupuis.

THE QUALITIES AND FAULTS OF YOUTH

Crowned king of the most populous country in Europe in 1515, François I entered Paris in great finery, throwing coins to a crowd full of the hope of renewal represented by this young king, just 21 years of age, so dashing and handsome. "François I was a young wolf, wearing the values of chivalry on his sleeve. A large man, well over six feet tall in a time when people were of smaller stature, a man of action dedicated to physical exercise" so says Geoffrey Lopez, who regularly plays the king in a historical re-enactment in the town of Romorantin.

Recently crowned and already victorious at the battle of Marignan, the king brought an aura of invincibility to the court. This view of his confidence turned to one of arrogance in the light of later diplomatic disappointments and the military defeats that followed. François was overtaken by Charles V in the race for the Holy Roman Empire, betrayed by Henry VIII, betrayed again by Constable Charles de Bourbon, a prisoner taken at the battle of Pavia. He was courageous but sometimes impulsive and poor strategist. He maintained a ferocious rivalry with Charles V and made controversial alliances with Protestant princes and the Ottoman Empire.

A paragon of youthful exuberance, "the king was also an excellent dancer and organised many court parties, known as Magnificences," says Denis Raisin Dadre, artistic director of Doulce Memoire, a musical ensemble that plays regularly at the music festival of Chambord. One of these magnificences was the famous field of the cloth of gold, a diplomatic meeting with Henry the Eighth. He also welcomed Charles V to Fontainebleau with lavish festivities. François I was a gallant man and a bon vivant, who savoured his pleasure. He collected silks, precious stones, refined earthenware, and often held sumptuous feasts to assert his supremacy.

All-powerful art

At the royal Château d’Amboise, "adored by his mother, adored by his sister", according to the writer Gonzague Saint Bris, François I received the education of a humanist gentleman, who "never went to bed less clever than he got up" and who surrounded himself with literary companions. He acted as sponsor to poets and writers, created a royal library in Blois and established the legal library. Curious and open-minded, he invited Italian artists to Blois, including Leonardo da Vinci, who would become a "Padre" to the king. The court of France thus became a veritable cultural centre.

The châteaux of Chambord, Blois, and Amboise... The ambitions of the builder king were immense, and went beyond aesthetics. "The construction of Chambord is clearly a manifestation of political power, a tool of propaganda," says Luc Forlivesi, director of heritage and chief curator at the château. François I wanted to be recognised as a prince of the Renaissance and the artistic magnificence of the sixteenth century allowed him to assert his power. While some accuse François I of an expensive taste for pomp, "this great king built the France of the Renaissance and invented the notion of international influence through culture," says Gonzague Saint Bris. He bequeathed us an admirable and unique heritage which remains his most important legacy.