‹ Past Exhibitions

"An Earthly Paradise": The Art of Living at the French Renaissance Court

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The Johnson Museum and Cornell Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections are pleased to present this exhibition reflecting the magnificence of the French royal court and the rise of that contradictory creature, the courtier. A simultaneously splendid and cruel period in French history, the century begins with the Italian wars of Charles VIII and Louis XII, and the French desire to both acquire Italian territory and bring back Italian culture and refinement.

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 was continued by François’s descendants Henri II, Charles IX, and Henri III. 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). The exhibition also introduces powerful women at the French court, including François I’s sister, the devout and learned Marguerite d’Angoulême, and the influential Diane de Poitiers, mistress to Henri II, whose beauty and wisdom inspired celebrated works in painting, sculpture, and architecture.

The exhibition culminates in a series of texts for the education of the ideal courtier, balanced with cutting satires of court life; these viewpoints show the paradoxical way in which courtiers were simultaneously held up as ideals worthy of emulation and scorned as flatterers, desperate for royal favor. 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.

We are grateful for the research contribution of Professor Kathleen Perry Long of the Department of Romance Studies and Guillaume Ratel from the Department of History; and to the Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Library, for their generous loans. Above all, we thank Professor Laurent Dubreuil, director of the French Studies Program, for making this exhibition and its programs possible.

Laurent Ferri
Assistant Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts,
Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Andrew C. Weislogel
Associate Curator / Master Teacher,
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art