When Francis was born on September 12, 1494, he was the cousin of the reigning monarch and had little chance of reached the throne of France. Then deaths intervened, and he became the heir. At the age of ten he was betrothed, at eighteen was given the command of an army, and at twenty was married . A year later he became king, invaded Italy and captured the city of Milan.
The new king was six feet tall and, except for a large nose and thin legs, was handsome. (He was nicknamed Le Roi Grand Nez.) Although happiest when hunting or jousting, he was active in the affairs of state, was a good conversationalist, ambitious for France and a patron of the arts. His sweet, charitable and pious wife, Claude, gave him seven children, then died. He did not marry again. While he was attracted to women and probably had syphilis as early as 1524, much written of him was probably exaggerated.
One incident early in Francis's reign was to be reflected in Le roi s'amuse. There was a plot against him which involved Jean de Poiters, seigneur de Saint-Vallier (Monterone in Rigoletto) who was arrested and sentenced to death. His head was actually on the block when a messenger arrived with a reprieve. The story started that his rebellion against the Francis was because the king had violated his daughter, Diane de Poiters, and she agreed to become Francis's mistress if her father's life were spared. Like many such stories, it was almost certainly not true. At the time she was the wife of the grand sénéchal of Normandy, the person most probably responsible for his step-father's reprieve. Diane seems to have been faithful to her husband, but after his death, became the mistress of Francis's son Henry II, twenty years her junior.
Triboulet, Francis's jester, has been described as a "deformed monkey-man", the only man in France with a nose larger than the king's. When Francis went to war, the terrified Triboulet was made to travel in the front lines. Jean Marot, portrayed as Marullo in Rigoletto, wrote:
At thirty as wise as the day he was born;
Little forehead, great eyes, a big nose, figure bent.
Long flat stomach, hunched back, to bear weight as he went;
He mimiscked all people, could sing, dance and preach,
Always pleasant, none ever resented his speech.
Hardly the reaction of the Duke of Mantua's courtiers! Triboulet is also mentioned by Rabelais. Pantgruel and Panurge discuss him and decide all France should celebrate a Triboulet Day "in the manner of All Fools'Day". Deformities such as his were very common in Europe at the time, often caused by the tight swaddling of babies.
Francis hoped to become Holy Roman Emperor and stood for election. He soon realized he had no chance and withdrew. All Europe was then composed of the France of Francis I, the Austrian Hapsburg Empire of Charles V, and the England of Henry VIII. France and the Empire were always enemies; Henry vacillated between them. In 1520, Francis formed an alliance with Henry VIII which was cemented on the Field of the Cloth of Gold named for the 300-400 French tents which were covered with velvet and cloth of gold. Days of jousting, tournaments, banquets and dances followed. But the cement was weak; Henry soon signed a treaty with Charles V. The complicated politics of the time also formed the background for the court of Alfonso d'Este of which Ariosto was a member. One of Francis's daughters, Renée married Alfonso's son, Ercole II. Italy's role as a pawn in the conflict between the French and the Empire lasted until the time of Verdi.
Francis's court was very large, with a nucleus of over 500. These included a confessor, almoners, chaplains, doctors, surgeons, an apothecary, barbers, stewards, gentlemen of the chamber, valets, ushers, bread-carriers, cup-bearers, carvers, squires, grooms, pages, secretaries, a librarian, quartermasters, porters, musicians, sumpters, coopers, spit-turners, sauce-makers, pastry-cooks, tapestry-makers and laundresses. There were departments to look after clothing, furniture and houses, and men to serve as messengers and to care for the falcons. The queen had her own household, as did the queen mother. Even the court of the royal children consisted of about 240 people. There were also over 700 soldiers serving as guards and, finally, a group of 'official' hangers-on. The latter included filles de joie suivant la cour (young girls of joy who follow the court). Like all courts of the time, Francis's moved frequently, seldom staying in one place for very long. Such travels were partly to keep in touch with his kingdom and partly because such a large group quickly overcame the sanitary facilities of even the largest palaces. The moves were a huge undertaking; as many as 18,000 horses were needed to convey everything!
The king's day began with the lever or rising, his very public and ceremonial awaking and dressing. He was involved in council meeting and other business until it was time for Mass at 10. The morning ended with the reception of various notables and petitioners. Afternoons were for pleasure, usually hunting, and he gave about two balls a week. He ate alone, the courtiers standing and watching. They also stood while he listened to readings from great literature.
Women had positions of leadership in the court of Francis. His mother, sister, wife and mistress all had an influential part in government and ran things when he was away.
Francis was a great builder and patron of the arts. He built one of the great libraries of Europe and made university education free to all who could benefit from it. He rebuilt the Louvre Palace in Paris and built or remodeled most of the chateaux along the River Loire. His palace at Fontainebleau included a large suite of baths with steam rooms decorated with paintings by the most famous artists of the day. When in Milan, Italy, he had seen Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper and was so impressed he invited the artist to France, settling him in the manor of Cloux, near Amboise. Later Francis acquired da Vinci's Mona Lisa, which now hangs in the Louvre. Another artist to benefit from his patronage was the Italian Benvenuto Cellini, one of the most famous prisoners (and escapees) of the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome. Cellini made his famous salt cellar, ironically now in Vienna, Austria, for Francis. (Another of Cellini's patrons was Ippolito d'Este the employer of Ariosto). Raphael and Titian were among the many artists who benefitted from Francis's patronage. Unfortunately, access to the court was free to everyone and, as a result, many of his beautiful and valuable items were stolen.
French exploration overseas also started with Francis; his mariners sailed the coast of Newfoundland in the early sixteenth century. In 1524 he sponsored the first voyage of Giovanni da Verrazano, whose name has been given to the narrows in New York Bay and the bridge across them. He called Manhattan Island "a very agreeable place between two small but prominent hill's" and described the Hudson River almost a century before it was 'discovered' by Henry Hudson in 1609. Francis also sponsored the expedition of Jacques Cartier which explored the St. Lawrence river and discovered and named 'Mont Réal'.
In spite of these accomplishments, Francis is now chiefly remembered as a libertine; it is true that he had several acknowledged mistresses and other liaisons. Brantôme (1540 - 1614) wrote of him: "He loved greatly and too much; for being young and free, he embraced now one, now another, with indifference". This is reflected in the Duke's aria Questa o quella! After Francis died of venereal disease at age 52 (on March 31, 1547), two months after Henry VIII, his reputation began to slip and reached bottom in 1832 with Hugo's Le roi s'amuse. Since then, this truly Renaissance man has been rehabilitated, but although his great accomplishments are now appreciated, he will always be remembered as he was portrayed as the amorous Duke of Mantua.