The Johnson Museum and the Cornell Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections are pleased to present this exhibition of Cornell’s holdings reflecting the magnificence of the French royal court and the rise of that strange animal, the courtier. By turns both splendid and cruel, the French sixteenth century begins with the Italian wars begun by Charles VIII in 1494 and continuing on and off until 1559 with Henri II, driven by the French desire to both acquire Italian territory and bring back what they understood of Italian culture. To be sure, Italian princely courts exerted a certain international influence on their own, but these geopolitical conquests—short-lived though they were—greatly enhanced interest in Italy and introduced the French élite for the first time to the fashionable art, literature, food, dress, and manners of the Italians, creating an insatiable appetite in many to adopt them. It is true that the stranglehold of Italian culture on the French court was never absolute: first, the Spanish influence was far from negligible, whether in men’s fashion or politically; secondly, despite the mass import of Italian patterns, a strong countercurrent of nationalism arose in the form of manifestoes promoting the superiority of the French language; pamphlets denouncing the ubiquity of Italian fashion; and the public detestation of some foreign officials and bankers. However, the Italian influence was decisive. A continuous stream of architects, gardeners, engineers, decorators, tailors, perfumers, cooks, poured across the Alps, beginning with the Cardinal d’Amboise at Gaillon and Charles VIII at Blois and Tours, and culminating with the two Medici queens.
The reign of François I (1494–1547) saw a flowering of art, letters, and architecture, coupled with a costly series of fruitless wars; this pattern of was continued by François’s descendants Henri II, Charles IX, and Henri III, all patrons of the arts and sciences. In this gallery is found a visual record of some of the greatest royal palaces begun by François (paid for by escalating taxation on the poor majority of the population), including Madrid, Fontainebleau, and Chambord.
The exhibition also introduces powerful women at the French court, including François I’s sister, the devout and learned Marguerite d’Angoulême, and Henri II’s influential mistress Diane de Poitiers, made Duchess of Valentinois in 1548, whose beauty and wisdom inspired celebrated works in painting, sculpture, and architecture. The period of Diane’s greatest influence at the court saw a panoply of imagery celebrating her namesake, Diana, the goddess of hunting and the moon; Diana/Diane’s crescent moon appears atop the goddess’s brow in decorations for royal palaces, on book bindings specially made for Diane’s library, and adorning the pinnacle of Anet, the château built for her.
The exhibition culminates in a series of texts and images contrasting model courtiers, real courtiers. Influential publications for the education of the courtier such as Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier and Mercurialis’s De Arte Gymnastica are balanced with cutting satires of court life by François Rabelais and Nicolas Barnaud; these differing viewpoints show the paradoxical way in which courtiers were simultaneously held up as ideals worthy of emulation and scorned as flatterers plotting against the State and/or using it to their own advantage. A double portrait of two gentlemen most likely records the likeness of two of the most notable court favorites from the reign of Henri III; both powerful military commanders though only in their twenties, they appear here as mignons, the arrogant and deceitful creatures of the court.
In the end, the French Renaissance court was probably not quite the “earthly paradise” described by the Seigneur de Brantôme, but it nonetheless retains its glamour and fascination for us today.
Assistant Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
Adjunct Associate Professor, Department of Comparative Literature, Cornell University
Andrew C. Weislogel
Associate Curator/Master Teacher, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University