Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Book Review: Francis in All His Glory

Title: Francis in All His Glory

Author: Burke Wilkinson

Date: 1972

Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux

ISBN: 0-374-32457-3

Length: 219 pages plus index, bibliography, chronology, and genealogy

Illustrations: black-and-white photos of portraits

Quote: “Although he loved the clang of battle and danger’s bright face, he almost never killed coldly or cruelly. To his contemporaries his knightly prowess and his chivalry may have seemed a little old-fashioned.”

Did the reference to “glory” make you expect this to be a book about Francis of Assisi? (Perhaps absurdly, it had that effect on me.) Sorry. It’s about Fran├žois or Francis I, born 1494, crowned King of France in 1515, died 1547; considered worthy of, if not preeminent among, a peer-group that included Henry VIII of England, Maximilian of Germany, and Ferdinand of Spain; admired by the artistic set that included Leonardo, Michelangelo, Erasmus, Titian, Clouet, Cellini, Machiavelli, Marot, Rabelais...and his sister, Marguerite, whose Heptameron is still in circulation today.

U.S. schools don’t teach even our own history with anything near the attention it deserves, still less the history of the countries our ancestors left. Many allegedly educated Americans don’t recognize Francis’ name or picture and have no idea why French people remembered 1515 as a great year for France. Burke Wilkinson set out to fill that academic gap, describing the achievements that allowed Francis to be described as a “Good King.” Kings of France went, anyway.Europe was nominally Christian, and the more enlightened monarchs (including Francis) were even beginning to learn how to read and write for themselves, but Europe was still a mess of feuding tribes who expected their leaders to be warriors first, strategists second, and thinkers or diplomats or even decent human beings only if they had energy left over. Francis, as portrayed, seems to have been an excellent fit for that job description. He found time to write some poems; the ones he let Clement Marot whip into shape were considered reasonably good. He paid enough attention to his religious instructors to carry out their wishes and banish Calvin to Geneva. He respected the women in his life—notably his mother, the one who negotiated his release from prison—but did nothing to improve the disgraceful status of women under French laws (or customs, which Francis failed to correct even by example). He admired the art of architecture, and designed a fabulous 400-room “hunting lodge,” Chambord. Mostly he was remembered for battles, not all of which he even won; during a civil war against some of the French provincial aristocrats Francis spent some time in prison in Italy, but he was considered a fair fighter and generous winner.

Were Francis and Henry friends? Wilkinson presents them more as colleagues who found it advantageous to behave like friends. All the European royalty called each other “cousin” if not “brother” or “sister,” as in fact most of them were. That Wilkinson found reports that Francis and Henry, in particular, envied each other’s looks... well, look at their portraits for yourself. (Wilkinson also shares some pictures of their allegedly beautiful female relatives, which serve to emphasize the point that, before modern medical science, “handsome” and “beautiful” often meant merely “not obviously very ill—yet.”) Despite a nominal alliance sealed by the betrothal of their younger relatives, Wilkinson reports that, after having spent some time with Francis, Henry muttered something about how, if he had a subject like that, that subject “would not long keep his head on his shoulders.” The context of this remark is not given. It may have been merely aesthetic. Francis’s head certainly did nothing to improve any view, though Francis deserves some kudos for allowing so many artists and artisans to agree so emphatically that he had a strange face. Henry merely looked like a heart attack waiting to happen. What Francis’s eyes were “saying,” the world probably prefers not to know.

Wilkinson mentions, but rejects, the claim that Leonardo actually died in Francis’s arms. They were close. Wilkinson thinks what they did was talk, especially “about the creation of a fabulous castle...Chambord’s turrets and pinnacles bear a striking resemblance to the sketches in Leonardo’s notebooks.” Leonardo da Vinci wrote, drew, and said quite a lot about a lot of things. Whether he was homosexual, asexual, even heterosexual but more discreet about it than most of his contemporaries, or simply postsexual, was not one of those things. (His will was outrageously generous to a younger man, but that may merely indicate that the younger man helped draw up the will.) Francis was heterosexual. The society in which they lived was not so homophobic that a man needed to be ashamed of lifting a sick patient “in his arms,” and at some other time during Leonardo’s illness Francis might have done that, but on the day Leonardo died, Wilkinson concludes, the two seem to have been in different places.

There is some debate about exactly what caused Francis to “age” and die at such early ages. Sixteenth-century medicine was the immediate cause. He apparently seemed old at forty, and died, after a heroic intervention of purging and bleeding, at fifty-one. Wilkinson mentions theories that Francis had either a sexually transmitted disease, or cancer. Wilkinson tersely tells us that what he had read about Francis’s symptoms supported the cancer theory. For those who really want to know, there’s a long bilingual bibliography at the back of the book.

Francis in All His Glory could have been a much longer book than it is. It was written to be accessible to European history buffs of all ages. The presupposition beneath Wilkinson’s terse and tasteful writing is that either you already remember what all the famous historical figures in this book were famous for, or you’ll want to read the other books that were already available (in English) about them. When Wilkinson mentions Anne of Brittany, Pope Leo, Diane de Poitiers, Andrea Doria, he expects those names to mean something to you that, if you’re a typical U.S. teenager, they don’t yet mean. This is probably why I got my copy so cheap from a school library that had given up trying to persuade fifteen-year-olds to read it. This is regrettable, Teen Readers, because many of the characters in Francis I’s biography have interesting biographies of their own.

If you like a good reality-based story with royalty and chivalry in it, this is that kind of story. You’ll enjoy it most, though, if you either have done or are willing to do all the additional reading about all those other characters. If you know the songs about Bayard and Anne and La Palice, this book will sing to you...“Vous plait-il d’ouir l’air du fameux La Palis-ce? Il pourra vous rejouir, pourvu qu’il vous divertis-se...”

Though Wilkinson no longer has any use for a dollar, this web site has to offer Francis in All His Glory on our usual terms: $5 per book, $5 per package (at least four books of this size would fit into a package), $1 per online payment. You could get a better price directly from Amazon, but then again, if you bought those other three books, some of which could be Fair Trade Books, the saving on shipping might even out prices. It's unfortunate that local servers don't allow this web site to make Paypal buttons available to most readers, including local readers, but the security advantages may make it a good thing after all that you need to send a paper U.S. postal order for $10 to Boxholder, P.O. Box 322, Gate City, Virginia, 24251-0322, or make a Paypal payment of $11 to the e-mail address you get by e-mailing salolianigodagewi @ yahoo.