My History Review of France : La Renaissance ( XVIème siècle)

DSCF1027 - Copy


The Renaissance is a period in which the Western civilization rediscovered the ideas, the knowledge and the philosophy of Old, the Greeks and the Romans.  The most important Renaissance era for France is the Sixteen Century, marked by the end of La Guerre de Cent Ans (100 Years War) and the conquering of Constantinople (l’ancienne Byzance).  The Renaissance movement began in Italy and included a rebirth of: the sciences, philosophy, and ancient letters. From an architectural point of view, the Renaissance period is my favorite.  The influences are still very prominent across France in the churches, hotels, chateaus, museums, and parks.

There were also many changes in the religious movement during the French Renaissance. Previously in the Moyen Age, Christian religion taught that the atonement of life existed for eternal life; that the body was not important.  On the contrary, the Renaissance movement taught the importance of life on earth, nature, things of this world and on human reason.  The individual was examined, his freedom of thought, the complete man.  Martin Luther led a movement of religious reform against the catholic church in 1520, supported by Jean Calvin, a Protestant.  This conflict soon erupted into the Guerres de Religion following the Saint Bartholomew’s Massacre of 3000 Protestants.

Les Valois (1328-1589)

Francois I (1494-1547)

Francois I by Jean Clouet 1480 Musee du Louvre

Francois I by Jean Clouet 1480 Musee du Louvre

There were several important French monarchs during the Renaissance period; however, I will mainly focus on Francois I for this post as most of the Renaissance influence was made possible by him and he is my favorite French King!  I was greatly inspired to learn more about his life after visiting his Châteaux in the Loire valley and by reading Desmond Seward’s excellent biography of Francois I in Prince of the Renaissance.  My daughter Lorin, who is a Professor of History and a British historian, and I are collaborating on a  book about the important diplomatic campaign and ensuing friendship between Francois I and Henry VIII after their meeting at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520.

Mom and daughter in Paris, 2012

Mom and daughter in Paris, 2012

Freize depicting meeting of Francois I and Henry VIII, Field of Cloth and Gold, Rouen

Freize depicting meeting of Francois I and Henry VIII, Field of Cloth and Gold, Rouen

Francois was a young, rich, and powerful King and upon his return from Italy and his visit with Pope Leo, he was determined to make his court a center of art and learning and therefore incorporated many Renaissance ideas into the French way of life.  Many rulers have dominated their age with a superb personal lifestyle like Louis XIV or a have become a great aesthete like the Medici monarchy, but Francois I did both and he personifies the French Renaissance of the sixteenth century (12).  When Francois was born in 1494, France was still Gothic.  When he died in 1547, French Renaissance was at its peak. According to Seward, “The reign of Francois I is the most radiant, the most creative in French history…no ruler since Charlemagne has had a more direct influence upon the civilization of France”(13).

Francois I invited Erasmus to become chancellor of a college for the study of Greek, Latin and Hebrew.  He also appointed many poets, painters and scholars as gentlemen-in-waiting.  Raphael and Titian painted his portraits.   Leondard da Vinci and Andrea del Sarto were his court painters. Francois invited da Vinci to live on his estate in Clois Luce after being overwhelmed by the Last Supper which he viewed in the Friary of Santa Maria delle Grazie during his visit to Milan. Da Vinci remained here until his death and is buried in a chapel adjacent to Francois’ Chateau d’Amboise (see more about the great mentorship between Francois I and da Vinci in my post

Chapel where Leonardo da Vinci is buried Amboise

Chapel where Leonardo da Vinci is buried

Henri II

Francois’ I son Henri II took over the rule of France in 1547 after his father’s death.  He married Catherine de Médicis, from Italy, in 1533.  He and Catherine had three sons, Francois II, Charles IX, and Henri III who became kings following Henri II’s untimely death during a recreational joust.  Unfortunately each of Henri II’s sons also died or were assinated early in their lives and left no direct heir to the throne.  Therefore, after a direct descendant of Louis IX, Henri IV, became the next King of France.

Catherine de Medici

Catherine de Medici

Les Bourbons (1589-1820)

Henri IV

Henri IV, known as “ The Good King Henri”  and “Le Vert Galant”,began his rule in France in 1574 following his marriage to Marguerite de Valois.  Due to much pressure and threats on his life,  he soon converted from Protestantism to Catholicism as he said “Paris vaut bien une messe” (Paris is worth a mass!).

He also married Marie de Medicis in 1600.  The Louvre Museum has devoted a grande salle de peintures, by Peter Paul Rubens, to the life of Marie de Medicis from her first step on French soil, The Disembarkation at Marseilles, to her assencion into heaven to be reunited with Henri IV, assassinated in 1589.  .

Marie de Medici by Rubens, Musee du Louvre

Marie de Medici by Rubens, Musee du Louvre


Antiquity is its literature and its art.  While the effects of the Moyen Age can still be viewed in Paris in the churches of  Saint-Germain des Pres, the Notre Dame, and Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre and the rue Saint Jacques, the characteristics of Renaissance architecture can still be seen all across France.  This includes many Italian influences:

Musee du Cluny

Musee du Cluny


1) exterior:  includes large windows designed to let in more sunlight, arabesques, grotesques, balustres, medallions with faces, and triangular frontons. Roman columns also returned to fashion including Dorique from 6th century, Ionique and Corinthian. These can be seen in many churches and civic buildings in Paris including the Cour Carée du Louvre,Eglise Saint-Eustache and Hotel de Ville.

november paris 035

Cour Caree, Musee du Louvre

2) interior: includes plafonds a caissons, large fireplaces with rectangular mantles  and ornate sculptures with gothic influence.  The gothic flamboyant style was reconstructed in the Abbey of Cluny in its profound voutes, detached garden in the back and in the rue Saint-Martin. Also, the first table with feet appeared along with the high-back armchairs, and the four poster beds.

My favorite architectural influence of the Renaissance can be seen in the Loire valley, south of France in the chateaus built by Francois I in Chambord, Chenonceaux, Amboise, and Fontainbleau (see my post

Chateau de Chenonceau

Chateau de Chenonceau

Finally, the late Renaissance influence can still be seen in Paris in: the Pont Neuf bridge, the Place Dauphine on Ile Saint-Louis, Place des Vosges (Pavillon du roi influenced by Henri IV) and in the façade and the jube of l’Eglise Saint-Etienne-du-Mont.

Pont Neuf, Paris

Pont Neuf, Paris


The French authors of this period are making a name for themselves across Europe through their humanists writings.  Rabelais, de Navarre, and Montaigne are writing about the human condition and asking “Que sais-je?”(What do I know?). Montaigne creates a new genre of the Autobiography.  The poet Ronsard writes about human immortality, love and nature , and in his Sonnets pour Hélène, writes, ”Cueillez des aujourd’hui les roses de la vie » (gather today the roses of life) which has become a much quoted phrase.

Science and Discoveries

Finally, during this era, there were great discoveries in the Western Civilization: the first printing press in France ( 1470), Christopher Columbus discovers America (1492), Vasco de Gama arrives in India (1498), and Jacques Cartier discovers Canada (1534).  In France, Ambroise Paré, “The Father of Modern Chemistry” discovered the life saving procedure of litigating the arteries after an amputation.

Kessler, M. Cours de Civilisation de la Francaise, Sorbonne Université. 2012

Ravise, J. Suzanne.  Tableaux culturels de la France.NTC Publishing, 1995

Seward, Desmond.(1973).  Prince of the Renaissance.  Macmillan Publishing Co: New York, NY

Copyright 2015 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s