The Renaissance and Early 17th Century (end of the 15th—first half of the 17th centuries)

King on a horse, under a canopy 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.

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.

35. Book of Hours of Marguerite d'Orléans, western France, around 1430, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Lat. 1156B, Parchment

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

44. Statuts de l'ordre de Saint-Michel (Statutes of the Order of Saint Michael), Tours, 1470, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 19819, Parchment

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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.

45. Gasparino Barzizza (b. around 1360–d. around 1431), Epistolae (Letters), Paris, 1470, Reserve of Rare and Precious Books, Rés. Z. 1986

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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.

47. Jean d'Arras, Le Livre de Mélusine (The Book of Mélusine), Geneva, 1478, Reserve of Rare and Precious Books, Rés. Y2. 400

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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.

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  • Louis the Pious, solidus, Duurstede (?), 814–840. Department of Coins, Medals and Antiquities, 1072

  • Charles VIII, cu d'or de Bretagne, Rennes, 1491–1498. Department of Coins, Medals and Antiquities, 1862

  • Charles VII, royal d'or, Lyons, 1429–1431. Department of Coins, Medals and Antiquities, 1378

  • Philip IV, Gold Florin called “à la Reine,” 1305. Department of Coins, Medals and Antiquities, 233

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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.

55. Petrarch (b. 1304–d. 1374), Les Triomphes (The Triumphs) Right page, anonymous French translation with the commentary of Bernardo Illicino, Rouen, around 1503, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 594, Parchment

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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.

56. Octavien de Saint-Gelais (b. 1468–d. 1502), Translation of Ovid's Epistulae heroidum. Right page, Cognac, 1496–1498, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 875, Parchment

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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.

59. Jean Marot, Le Voyage de Gênes (Voyage to Genoa) (Jean Bourdichon, painter), Tours, around 1508, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Fr. 5091, Parchment

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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.

60. Petites heures d'Anne de Bretagne (Little Book of Hours of Anne of Brittany), Right page. Rouen (?), around 1503, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, NAL 3027

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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 seventeenth centuries.

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

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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.

67. Letter of Süleyman the Magnificent to Francis I, King of France, Istanbul, 1536, Manuscripts Department, Oriental Section, Supplément turc, 822, Scroll

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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.

70. François Rabelais (b. around 1494–d. 1553). Pantagruel, Lyon, 1532, Reserve of Rare and Precious Books, Rés. Y2. 2146

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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.

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

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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.

74. Oronce Fine (b. 1494–d. 1555). Map of the World, 1534–36, Department of Maps and Plans, Rés. Ge DD 2987 (63), Paper

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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.

80. Hours of Henry II, 1547–1550, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Lat. 1429, Vellum

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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.

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

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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 to render.

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

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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.

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

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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.

93. La Guirlande de Julie (Julie's Garland) (Nicolas Robert, painter), Paris, 1641, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, NAF 19735, Vellum

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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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  • 102c. Lute Player. Costumes for the Ballet royal de la nuit (Royal Ballet of the Night), around 1650, Department of Prints and Photographs, Hennin Collection nos. 3674

  • 102b. Warrior. Costumes for the Ballet royal de la nuit (Royal Ballet of the Night), around 1650, Department of Prints and Photographs, Hennin Collection nos. 3674

  • 102a. Apollo. Costumes for the Ballet royal de la nuit (Royal Ballet of the Night), around 1650, Department of Prints and Photographs, Hennin Collection nos. 3674

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