Thoroughgoing biography of the French ruler who allied with Islam in an effort to resist his Habsburg neighbors.
“If ever there were a king who warrants rehabilitation, it is Francis.” So writes Frieda (The Deadly Sisterhood: A Story of Women, Power, and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance, 1427-1527, 2013, etc.), who makes a solid effort here. Allowing that Francis I was a “deeply flawed figure” who was committed to the principle of absolutist rule and violently suppressed dissenting religionists, the author lends him humanity by examining his scholarly and artistic interests. As she shows, Francis was a man of letters who supported the work of Andrea del Sarto, Leonardo da Vinci, and other artists even if he sometimes experienced disappointment at their hands—Leonardo never produced the great work of art while residing in Paris that Francis hoped for, though he did leave the Mona Lisa, which explains why it’s housed in the Louvre, which Francis had restored. He also took considerable effort to learn the many and diverse regions that made up his domain. Events placed him in contention with the neighboring powers of Europe, including the Habsburgs of Austria and the pope. While Francis “mired himself in a succession of skirmishes and conflicts on too many fronts,” he took some interesting and daring risks, including forging a short-lived alliance with Suleiman the Magnificent, the leader of the Ottoman Empire, leading to the arrival of a “large and potentially dangerous Muslim population” within France; another anti-Italian alliance with the pirate king Barbarossa led to the ransacking of the French fleet. For all his diplomatic and military difficulties and problems with orderly succession, Francis was also a patron of explorers who soon extended France’s empire into the Americas, Africa, and Asia.
Though a figure of major importance, Francis has been forgotten against better known contemporaries such as England’s Henry VIII. Frieda’s work helps restore him to history.