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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Francis I

Francis I, King of France, 1539, Titian
Benvenuto Cellini's portrait of the king
tends to minimize his long nose.
If it weren't for art collectors there would be far fewer artists. That's as much a fact today as any time in the past, even going back to some of the very first art collectors. During the Italian Renaissance the de' Medici were among the first individual patrons of the art. They were a banking family. They had money. That, along with good taste, are the two primary prerequisites for collecting art. In France, around the same time (the early 1500s) the king of France sought to imitate the wealthy Florentines. He sent agents bearing money (if not good taste) to pick up important works of art (mostly paintings) for his new royal collection. His name was King Francis I, and without his money and good taste there would, today, be a lot less art in France. There might not even be a Louvre.

Francis I was born in 1494 at the Chateau de Cognac in west-central France. He became King by marrying the daughter of his second cousin, King Louis XII in 1514. The king died a year later and Francis at the age of 21 became king in his place. Having been the presumptive heir to the French throne since the age of four (when he and the king's daughter were betrothed) Francis had the best Renaissance education money could buy, and a mother (Louise of Savoy), from whom he inherited his good tastes. In uniting the various discordant provinces into the geographical area of France we know today, Francis came into a lot of money as the country's first, real, absolute monarch. Mostly he wasted it fighting various wars with his nemesis, Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire (a misnomer if there ever was one). However, a significant portion of the country's wealth he used to buy art and build chateaus. Despite what we might deem obscene extravagance in both areas, compared to fighting wars on all sides of him (he also fought with the Spanish, the Italians, and even the Swiss) it was money well spent.

Francis I receiving the last breath of Leonardo da Vinci in 1519,
1818, Jean-Auguste Ingres
When Francis became king, the walls of the various royal habitations in France were virtually bare. There were a few crude, portraits here and there, but no sculpture and the architecture (if you could call it that) was Medieval at best. In collecting art, Francis I also collected artists principally Andrea del Sarto, Benvenuto Cellini, Rosso Fiorentino, Giulio Romano, Primaticcio, and most notably, Leonardo da Vinci, who came to live, and later die, in the king's palace (as depicted by Ingres, above). With him, he came packing the Mono Lisa, which is why it hangs in the Louvre today.
The Chateau de Chambord, 1519-1546, Loire Valley, France
Palatially speaking, Francis' most notable construction was the French Renaissance Chateau de Chambord in the Loire valley. The sprawling white edifice, still under construction when the king died in 1547, has been attributed to a number of different architects, but romantic tradition maintains it was designed by Leonardo da Vinci himself shortly before his death. The king's roster of other royal residences, either built or refurbished during his reign, include the Chateau d'Ambroise, the Chateau de Blois, the Chateau de Madrid, the Ch√Ęteau de St-Germain-en-Laye, the Chateau de Fontainebleau, as well at the Chateau du Louvre, in Paris. Today's massive Louvre art collection began with approximately 200 works amassed by Francis I. By 1682, when Louis XIV vacated the drafty old palace for Versailles, that number had grown to over 2,000. Today, the Louvre's art objects alone number some 35,000.


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