Contact between the French and Italians in the long running series of wars under Charles and Louis had brought new ideas to France by the time the young Francis was receiving his education. Thus a number of his tutors, such as Desmoulins, his Latin instructor, and Christophe de Longeuil were schooled in the new ways of thinking and they attempted to imbue Francis with it. Francis' mother also had a great interest in Renaissance art, which she passed down to her son. One certainly cannot say that Francis received a humanist education; most of his teachers had not yet been affected by the Renaissance. One can, however, state that he clearly received an education more oriented towards humanism than any previous French king.
By the time Francis ascended the throne in 1515 the Renaissance had clearly arrived in France, and Francis was an important supporter of the change. Francis became a major patron of the arts. He lent his support to many of the greatest artists of his time and encouraged them to come to France. Some did work for him, including such greats as Andrea del Sarto, and Leonardo da Vinci, who Francis convinced to leave Italy in the last and least productive part of his life. While Leonardo did little painting in his years in France, he brought with him many of his great works, such as the Mona Lisa, and these stayed in France upon his death.
Other major artists who Francis employed include the goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, and the painters Rosso and Primaticcio, all of whom were heavily employed in decorating Francis' various palaces. Francis employed a number of agents in Italy who endeavoured to procure artworks by Italian masters such as Michelangelo, Titian, and Raphael and ship them to France. These agents had some notable successes, even if plans to try to move Leonardo's Last Supper to France proved impractical. When Francis ascended the throne the royal palaces were decorated with only a scattering of great paintings, and not a single piece of sculpture either ancient or modern. It is during Francis' reign that the magnificent art collection of the French kings that can still be seen in the Louvre was truly begun.
Francis was also renowned as a man of letters. When Francis comes up in a conversation among characters in Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, it is as the great hope to bring culture to the war-obsessed French nation. Not only did Francis support a number of major writers of the period, he was a poet himself, if not one of immense quality. Francis worked hard at improving the royal library. He appointed the great French humanist Guillaume Budé as chief librarian, and began to expand the collection. Francis employed agents in Italy looking for rare books and manuscripts, just as he had looking for art works. During his reign the size of the library increased greatly. Not only did Francis expand the library, there is also, according to Knecht, evidence that he read the books he bought for it, a much rarer feat in the royal annals. Francis set an important precedent by opening his library to scholars from around the world in order to facilitate the diffusion of knowledge.
Francis was an impressive builder and he poured vast amounts of money into new structures. He continued the work of his predecessors on the Chateau Amboise and also started renovations on the Royal Chateau at Blois. Early in his reign he also began construction of the magnificent Chateau Chambord, very obviously inspired by the styles of the Italian renaissance, and perhaps even designed by Leonardo. Francis rebuilt the Louvre, turning it from a gloomy medieval fortress into a building of renaissance splendour. Francis financed the building of a new City Hall (Hotel de Ville) for Paris in order to have control over the building's design. He constructed the château de Madrid and rebuilt the château of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The largest of Francis' building projects was the reconstruction and expansion of Royal Chateau of Fontainebleau, which quickly became his favourite place of residence. Each of Francis' projects was luxuriously decorated both inside and outside. Fontainebleau, for instance, had a gushing fountain in its courtyard where quantities of wine were mixed with the water.
Militarily and politically, Francis' reign was less successful; he tried and failed to become Holy Roman Emperor, and pursued a series of wars in Italy - see Italian Wars. His most devastating defeat occurred at the Battle of Pavia where he was captured by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Francis was held captive in Madrid and forced to make major concessions to Charles before he was freed. Upon his return to France, however, Francis argued that his agreement with Charles was made under duress and he repudiated it.
As king, in 1524 he assisted the citizens of Lyon to finance the expedition of Giovanni da Verrazano to North America; on this expedition, Verrazano claimed Newfoundland for the French crown. In 1534, he sent Jacques Cartier to explore the St. Lawrence River in Quebec to find certaines îles et pays où l'on dit qu'il se doit trouver grande quantité d'or et autres riches choses ("certain islands and lands where it is said there are great quantities of gold and other riches").
In his castle in Villers-Cotterêts, Aisne, in 1539, Francis signed the edict which made French the administrative language instead of Latin. The same edict required priests to register births and establish a registry office.
An important change Francis brought to European history was that he came to an understanding with the Ottoman Turks. No formal treaties with the 'infidels' were signed, but high-level meetings between the two powers let them collude against Charles V, and in 1543 the two powers even combined for a joint naval assault on Nice.
While Francis left France strewn with magnificent palaces he caused severe harm to the nation's economic well-being in order to do so. In his old age Louis XII worried that Francis, his successor, "would spoil everything." Francis' father-in-law had left France in good shape with the monarchy ascendant over the feudal lords and the economy prospering. While Francis continued to strengthen the crown he succeeded in undermining the nation's economy. Palaces were extremely expensive, as were wars against the Hapsburgs. To pay for these efforts Francis undermined the nation's fiscal security. Taxes went up: the taille, the tax on peasants, more than doubled, while the gabelle, the salt tax, was tripled. Francis also used new ways to raise revenues. He sold many of the crown jewels and began alienating crown lands, disposing of important liquid assets. Francis also began the process of selling offices for quick revenue. While he did not practice the selling of offices extensively he did begin the trend that would eventually undermine the entire French government.
The amorous exploits of Francis inspired the 1832 play by Victor Hugo (1802-85), Le Roi s'amuse (The King Enjoys Himself), in turn inspiring the 1851 opera of Giusuppe Verdi (1813-1901), Rigoletto.
Francis' older sister, Marguerite (1492-1549), Queen of Navarre, wrote the classic, Heptameron.
Francis' legacy is a mixed one. He achieved great cultural feats, but they came at the expense of France's economic well being.
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François was first played in a George Méliès movie by an unknown actor in 1907, and has also been played by Claude Garry (1910), Aimé Simon-Girard (1937), Sacha Guitry (1937), Gérard Oury (1953), Jean Marais (1955), Pedro Armendáriz (1956), Claude Titre (1962), Bernard Pierre Donnadieu (1990)