King François I, the original Renaissance man, was born on September 12, 1494. During his formative years, ideas from the Italian renaissance were percolating across the border, which greatly influenced the education of the young man. When François took the throne, the royal palaces had almost no art at all. The king set about amassing a fabulous art collection that became the backbone of the Louvre. Possibly his most significant move as a patron of the arts was to persuade Leonardo da Vinci to move to France during the last years of his life. When he came, the artist brought a little painting known as La Joconde, or Mona Lisa, with him.
François was also a supporter of poets and writers. Expanding the royal library with rare books and manuscripts was another passion of the king. Not only did he buy books, he read them. He also allowed scholars from around the world to use his library in order to allow for the diffusion of knowledge. By royal decree, a copy of every book published in France was added to the library. He declared French the official language, edging out Latin in official documents. In the Royal College, he ordered the teaching of Greek, Hebrew, and Chaldean (!). François created the first official collection of population statistics, ordering priests to register births, marriages, and deaths.
Buildings did not escape François’ attention; he continued the construction of Amboise and the renovations of Blois. His special project was Chambord, the 400 room hunting lodge. He didn’t neglect the capital, turning the Louvre into the building we recognize today and building the present City Hall. Fontainebleau was François’ favorite palace and every surface was lavished with decoration.
His military accomplishments were less stellar. François tried unsuccessfully to become Holy Roman Emperor. He was even captured and wrote a letter which contained the line that has come down through almost 500 years as “All is lost save honor” or “Tout est perdu sauf l’honneur” (toot eh peardew sewf lonur). In old French, sauf is written as fors, almost an anagram of the modern word.
While François was eventually released, his hostility toward Emperor Charles V only intensified. This rivalry motivated François to attempt to gain strategic footholds in the New World. The explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano claimed Newfoundland and founded a city named New Angoulême, better known today as New York. Then he sent Jacques Cartier to explore the Saint Lawrence River, leading to the establishment of Québec. François also created trading relationships with the East. He established diplomatic connections with Suleiman the Magnificent and the Ottoman Empire as well as with Morocco. The first official Arabic courses were opened in France by royal decree.
The first stirrings of Protestantism were felt during François’ reign. At first he was tolerant, but turned against the movement when notices sprang up all over Paris denouncing the mass – including the king’s own room. The subsequent persecution of Protestants included massacres at the king’s command and led to decades of religious strife that threatened to tear France apart.
He died on March 31, 1547, leaving a rather mixed legacy behind him.