The Path to Royal Absolutism:
The Renaissance and Early 17th Century
(end of the 15th -- first half of the 17th centuries)
The political and cultural history of France from 1498 to 1661, that is, from Louis XII's accession to the throne to Louis XIV's personal assumption of power, can be divided into three major phases. The first, up to the death of Henry II in 1559, looked to Italy as a land ripe for conquest and as an inspiration for France's own Renaissance.
The second period (1562-1598) saw the realm convulsed by eight civil wars--the Wars of Religion--as France grappled with the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was both a theological dispute about the proper understanding and practice of Christianity and a political controversy about the legal status of the new Reformation churches. In France, the conflict took on a further political dimension when members of the high nobility attempted to take advantage of the chaos to wrest power from the king. Factions tore each other apart. The weakened monarchy had to reconquer Paris (1594) and drive the Spanish from the kingdom (1597). Henry IV finally reestablished the monarchy's legitimacy when he legally recognized French Protestants and gave them freedom of worship.
Henry IV's conversion to Catholicism in 1594 inaugurated a new era and a new dynasty of French kings, the Bourbons. Through a governance as militaristic and absolutist as that of any of his predecessors, Henry censored writers and preachers in the name of public peace. Ironically, he would be assassinated in 1610 (after nineteen unsuccessful attempts on his life), falling victim to the very violence and religious passions he sought to quell.
During the half-century that followed,
Cardinal Richelieu (b. 1585-d. 1642) orchestrated the royal government's
reconquest of domestic control. The monarchy reinforced its monitoring
of printing, totally strangling the emerging press. The French language
itself became an object of government concern through the newly created
Académie Française, a fitting example of Richelieu's
overall program of state control over politics and culture. Once the
last rebellion of the feudal nobility was suppressed, the framework
and mechanisms of absolute monarchy were in place, needing only the
arrival of Louis XIV to complete the scene.
35. Book of Hours of Marguerite d'Orléans, western France, around 1430, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Lat. 1156B, Parchment
In this illustration, the combined arms of Brittany and Orléans appearing
behind the lady praying to the Virgin indicate that this book was produced
for Marguerite d'Orléans, sister of Charles d'Orléans.
One of the most exquisite examples of fifteenth-century French illumination,
this book of hours was executed in a complex series of stages, its decoration
inspired by diverse sources and artists. The artist's decorative genius
is affirmed most strongly in the imaginative borders.
42. Pierre Bersuire (b. 1290-d. around 1362), Translation of Livy's (first century, B.C.) Decades (volume 2), Paris, after 1480, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 274, Parchment
Commissioned by King John the Good (1350-1364), this first major literal translation
of Livy into French was a key medieval reference work on antiquity.
It inaugurated the translations commissioned under Charles V (1364-1380)
and Charles VI (1380-1422), which provided aristocratic circles with
a cultural model established by the royal entourage. The opening illustration
shows Livy in his study. Carthage is depicted as the Ile de la Cité
in Paris while Hannibal asks his father to take him to Spain.
43. Cérémonies et ordonnances à gage de bataille (Ceremonies and Edicts for Trial by Combat), Paris, around 1460-1465, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 2258, Parchment
This book outlines the procedures for settling a quarrel through trial by
combat. This opening depicts the confrontation which takes place in
an enclosed space, before juges d'armes who monitor the legality
of the blows exchanged, and an elegant audience of lords and ladies.
This copy was made for François II, Duke of Brittany (1458-1488).
Its diminutive format, presentation of miniatures, and lavish decoration
link the manuscript to books of hours rather than to treatises.
44. Statuts de l'ordre de Saint-Michel (Statutes of the Order of Saint Michael), Tours, 1470, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 19819, Parchment
In an effort to guarantee the allegiance of ranking nobles, Louis XI (1461-1483)
founded the Order of Saint Michael in 1469. The book of Statutes
exhibited here--the king's own copy and the finest of all extant copies--was
illuminated by Jean Fouquet (b. around 1420-d. around 1480), the king's
official painter. The manuscript's only large miniature depicts the
king surrounded by the order's fifteen knights with the four officers
of the Order in the background.
45. Gasparino Barzizza (b. around 1360-d. around 1431), Epistolae (Letters), Paris, 1470, Reserve of Rare and Precious Books, Rés. Z. 1986
Gasparino Barzizza, one of the first Italian Humanists, taught rhetoric, grammar,
and moral philosophy, hoping to revive Latin literature. The examples
of epistolary art in his Epistolae were designed to teach prose composition.
The edition displayed here is the first book printed in France. The
first French press was set up at the Sorbonne by two professors who
recruited three printers from Germany to whom Louis XI (1461-1483) granted
letters of naturalization in 1475.
47. Jean d'Arras,Le Livre de Mélusine (The Book of Mélusine), Geneva, 1478, Reserve of Rare and Precious Books, Rés. Y2. 400
At the close of the fourteenth century, Jean, Duke of Berry and Count of Poitou
(b. 1340-d. 1416), commissioned a genealogical romance glorifying the
Lusignan family from Poitou. Jean d'Arras, the author, drew upon elements
of oral, folk literature--a mother-goddess and the breaking of a taboo--creating
a new type of romance, different from contemporary tales of Charlemagne
and King Arthur. This illustration shows the husband breaking the taboo
by viewing his wife bathing.
54. Coins of the eighth through the sixteenth centuries
This selection of coins depicts French coinage between the late eighth century and early sixteenth century. Charlemagne's reform of 794 created a new denarius whose appearance would change little until the tenth century. The denarius of Charles the Bald (840-877), a half-century later, still closely resembles that of Charlemagne (768-814). Exceptions to the almost exclusive use of silver that lasted until about 1270 included the gold solidi of Louis the Pious (814-840), intended for commerce with the peoples of the north. The absence of a purely royal coinage under Hugh Capet (987-996) suggests the weakness of the new Capetian dynasty: only some denarii and oboles issued by the bishop of Beauvais and a unique denarius of Laon survive. Philip II (1180- 1223) instituted the double system of the denier parisis north of the Loire and the denier tournois to the south. Under Louis IX (1226-1270) appeared the first multiple of the denier, the gros denier worth twelve denarii. The period from Philip IV (1285- 1314) to Philip VI (1328-1350) saw a multitude of gold coins of varied and artistic types, including the gold florin "à la Reine". The royal d'or, ordered October 9, 1429 represents Charles VII (1422-1461) shortly after his coronation. Although already part of the kingdom of France, Brittany retained some issues of a special type until the mid-sixteenth century. The king's portrait appeared for the first time under Louis XII (1498-1515) on heavy silver coins, called "testons", opening a new chapter in the history of French coins.
55. Petrarch (b. 1304-d. 1374), Les Triomphes (The Triumphs) Left page - Right page, anonymous French translation with the commentary of Bernardo Illicino, Rouen, around 1503, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 594, Parchment
This manuscript's script and style of illumination confirm that it was produced
in the northwestern city of Rouen. Its illustrations represent the first
serious attempt by a French artist to illustrate Petrarch's poem. The
artist depicted, in a series of diptychs, the triumphs of Love, of Chastity,
of Reason, of Death, of Fame (portrayed here), of Time, and of the Trinity.
Louise of Savoy (b. 1467-d. 1531), widow of Charles d'Angoulême (b.
1460-d. 1496) and mother of Francis I (1515-1547), commissioned this
translation of Ovid's Epistulae heroidum, a collection of letters
fictitiously attributed to heroines of Antiquity grieving over their
unrequited loves. The illustrations represent the heroines, whose faces
give the appearance of being authentic portraits, in the act of writing.
Dress is alternately exotic or inspired by the fashion of the day. Depicted
here is Hypsipylé, first wife of Jason.
59. Jean Marot, Le Voyage de Gênes (Voyage to Genoa) (Jean Bourdichon, painter), Tours, around 1508, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 5091, Parchment
Louis XII's rapid conquest of the city of Genoa in April 1507 struck public
opinion as a remarkable feat of arms, sparking rapturous accounts by
court chroniclers and poets who extolled the king's greatness and fame.
Jean Marot, the king's official poet, composed a verse account of the
victorious expedition, copied in a fine manuscript intended for Louis's
wife, Anne of Brittany (b. 1477-d. 1514). In this illustration Louis
XII makes a triumphal entry into Genoa.
This little book of hours may have been produced for Queen Anne of Brittany.
This is not certain as so little account was taken of the saints for
whom she felt particular devotion and who were to be found in her prayerbook
and in the Great Book of Hours. The only saint to be honored with a
miniature in the section of intercessory prayers is Saint Louis. Shown
here is an illustration of the Annunciation.
62. François Ier en déité (Francis I as a God), mid-1540s, Department of Prints and Photographs, Na 255 Rés., Parchment glued on oak panel
In this painting, the king, Francis I (1515-1547), wears Minerva's helmet,
Mars's armor, Mercury's winged sandals and his staff, Diana's hunting
horn, and Cupid's bow and quiver; and a Medusa's head adorns his breastplate.
This elevation of the monarch into a superman with the attributes of
the Olympic gods was typical of royal iconography in the sixteenth and
67. Letter of Süleyman the Magnificent to Francis I, King of France, Istanbul, 1536, Manuscripts Department, Oriental Section, Supplément turc, 822, Scroll
As proof of the budding alliance between the French monarchy and the Ottoman
sultans in the early sixteenth century, this letter was addressed by
Suleyman (Suleiman) the Magnificent (1520-1566) to Francis I in 1536.
Infused with the appropriate solemnity and magnificence, it was calligraphed
with great care in a number of scripts, using inks of different colors.
This important document marks the beginning of a permanent French embassy
at the Ottoman court.
70. François Rabelais (b. around 1494-d. 1553), Pantagruel, Lyon, 1532, Reserve of Rare and Precious Books, Rés. Y2. 2146
The title character of Pantagruel, of which this is the oldest extant
version, can be traced to a figure in fifteenth-century mystery plays:
the sprite of thirst, who incited people to drink by throwing them salt.
The book celebrates wine, love, and mortal pleasures. All the coarse
passages in this copy were inked out in the sixteenth century.
71. Initiatoire instruction en la religion chrestienne pour les enffans (Beginning Instruction in the Christian Religion for Children), attributed to Wurttemburg reformer Johann Brenz (b. 1499-d. 1570), France, around 1527, Library of the Arsenal, MS 5096, Parchment
Although a Catholic, Queen Marguerite of Navarre (b. 1492-d. 1549), King Francis
I's sister, protected and corresponded with reformers. Written for Marguerite
at the time of her marriage (1527), this manuscript opens with two large
miniatures. On folio 1 verso is a golden crown inside a wreath bearing
the arms of the princess. On folio 2, Marguerite's husband, Henry of
Albret, king of Navarre (1517-1555) and grandfather of the future Henry
IV (1589-1610), is shown holding a marguerite daisy.
74. Oronce Fine (b. 1494-d. 1555), Map of the World, 1534-36, Department of Maps and Plans, Rés. Ge DD 2987 (63), Paper
Oronce Fine was one of the rare French geographers in the Renaissance to prepare
maps of the world. This map is bordered with a handsome Renaissance
decoration: two columns support a pediment bearing a Latin inscription
signifying "A new and complete description of the world," interrupted
in the middle by a coat of arms of France. Also to be noted is a vast
southern land mass (Terra Australis), recently discovered but
not yet explored.
80. Hours of Henry II, 1547-1550, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Lat. 1429, Vellum
Traditional in text and layout, this finely-crafted prayer book meant for
private devotion and enjoyment, is innovative in its Old Testament miniatures,
which illustrate the cares and duties of kingship. The last miniature,
exhibited here, shows Henry II (1547-1569) healing the diseased with
his touch. The newly-crowned king is garbed in his gold, fleur-de-lis-embroidered
regalia; on the far right stands the Archbishop of Rheims, who presided
at Henry's coronation.
81. Bible hébraique (Hebrew Bible), anonymous German copy, end of the 13th century; with Parisian binding, around 1555, Manuscripts Department, Oriental Section, Hébreu 16. binding, Parchment
This binding by Claude Picques, binder to Francis I, Henry II, and Francis
II, is one of the most beautiful sixteenth-century French bindings.
On a ground of black morocco, the boards present interlacing, ornamental
foliage of light tan morocco, with certain geometric and foliate patterns
painted in green. The binding bears the arms and monograms of Henry
II and Catherine de Medici (b. 1519-d. 1589), but also the "D"
of Diane de Poitiers (b. 1499-d. 1566), the king's paramour.
83. François Clouet,Catherine de Medicis en veuve (Catherine de Medicis as a Widow), around 1560, Department of Prints and Photographs, Na 22 Rés., boîte 4, Vellum
This portrait in black chalk is one of the finest achievements of François
Clouet (b. before 1522-d. 1572) from the last years of his career. Queen
Catherine (b. 1519-d. 1589), widowed at forty, was overcome with grief
and dressed in black for the rest of her life. Ambassadors were struck
by her pale complexion and stoutness as much as by her intelligence
and stubbornness, the two aspects of her personality that Clouet strove
86. Les Pénitents blancs et bleus du roy Henri IIIe (The White and Blue Penitents of King Henry III), Paris, between 1583 and 1589, Reserve of Rare and Precious Books, Rés. La25. 6
While Paris was in the hands of the extremist Catholic League, Pierre de L'Estoile
(b. 1546-d. 1611) assembled an album, Les Belles figures et drolleries
de la Ligue, which was intended to show the League's "wickedness,
vanity, folly, and deception." This woodcut recalls the great Parisian
processions by "blue and white penitents" (so-called from the color
of their garments), which Henry III instituted in 1583, and in which
the king and his nobles participated.
93. La Guirlande de Julie (Julie's Garland) (Nicolas Robert, painter), Paris, 1641, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, NAF 19735, Vellum
In 1634, Charles de Sainte-Maure, future Duke of Montausier (b. 1610-d. 1690),
gave his beloved Lucine-Julie d'Angennes (b. 1607-d. 1671) a collection
of verses. Prepared in collaboration with the most fashionable poets
of his time, these verses exalted Julie's beauty and other qualities
through the theme of flowers. Faced with her apparent indifference,
the marquis produced a more lavish version, exhibited here, which he
gave Julie in 1641. Three years later, they were married.
94. Madeleine de Scudéry (b. 1607-d. 1701), Clélie, histoire romaine, première partie (Clélie: A Roman Story, part I), Paris, 1654, Reserve of Rare and Precious Books, Rés. Yý. 1496
Madeleine de Scudéry's novel, Clélie, served as pretext
for the description of acquaintances, stately residences, and palaces,
and for dialogues based on actual conversations of her salon. The most
immediate stir was created by the Carte du tendre (Map of Affection),
engraved by François Chauveau and inserted in the first part
of the novel. A salon game, the Map sparked a fad for "amorous geography"
that took the form of allegorical almanacs and imaginary maps.
96. Rashîd Al-Dîn (b. 1247-d. 1318), Recueil d'oeuvres théologiques (Collection of Theological Works), Tabriz, Iran, 1307-10, Manuscripts Department, Oriental Section, Arabe 2324, Paper
This manuscript, one of many from Mazarin's library that entered the royal
collection in 1668, is important for the period of the Il'Khans, the
Mongol dynasty that reigned in Persia in the thirteenth and fourteenth
centuries. Rashîd al-Dîn, physician to King Abaqa (1265-1282),
played a key role when the dynasty converted to Islam. He founded a
mosque that became a center of important editorial production and cultural
exchange, and published his own theological writings.
102a-c. Costumes for the Ballet royal de la nuit (Royal Ballet of the Night), around 1650, Department of Prints and Photographs, Hennin Collection nos. 3674
The costumes contributed to the dazzling entertainment of Le Ballet royal de la nuit, as did scenery changes and the ballet's diverse characters. The ballet ends with the appearance of Aurore, who yields her place to the rising Sun, Apollo, played the first time by the young king Louis XIV. During his lifetime, Louis performed a wide range of roles--including plebeian characters. These drawings are of the Lute Player, the Warrior, and Apollo.
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