Summary on the Gallery of Francis I

Study of the gallery over the past fifty years, since the essays of Lövgren of 1951 and Tervarent of 1952, and especially those prompted by the restoration of the 1960s, clearly indicate that whatever changes to the decorations that can be recognized as having taken place between the time of their first conception, after the elimination of the proposed cabinet at the west end and the chapel at the east, to the gallery’s completion in 1539, must be seen within a framework, both iconographic and stylistically decorative, that was envisioned from the outset.  But rather than confine the possibilities of invention, the complex intentions of the thematic content of the decoration probably allowed for a certain flexibility in the choice of subjects that would ultimately be used.  That is to say that no one subject, either major or minor, was absolutely inevitable to the end although all changes would have taken place within some generally established frame of reference.  Thus the Scene of Sacrifice could be slightly altered to produce a somewhat different emphasis of its content and the Death of Adonis could, possibly, replace another death scene, of the Funeral of Hector.  The Nymph of Fontainebleau, not part of the very first conception of the program of the gallery, would have been entertained as an addition to the gallery, when the exterior terrace walkway was built and the South Cabinet was abandoned, even though it was eventually withdrawn when the Danaë planned for the South Cabinet was brought into the gallery itself, framed with motifs intended for the Nymph.  Other changes may also have been made for which, however, we have no real circumstantial evidence.  A general frame of reference for the disposition of the stuccowork and paintings must also have been established quite early, before the execution of the stuccowork was begun, probably in 1534, for the whole decoration as executed reveals a compositional order that could not have come about piecemeal.  The decoration of each compartment, unified as it appears, was not conceived independently of that of the others, as the iconography of each wall was not.

With this in mind some remarks on the program and iconography of the decoration of the Gallery of Francis I are appropriate, but not an elaboration of them in the context of this catalogue.  It is very probable that the nature of the final iconographical program of the gallery’s conception and decoration prevents the reconstruction of what was devised initially to govern the subjects to be represented and the distribution of them.  Not only were changes made but the visual order of the decoration, clear as it can be seen to be in one sense, is also elusive, and this seems to be true of the iconography as well.  This order – basically the tripartite scheme of each compartment with the salamander above a large central scene and a cartouche below – is not absolutely indicative of a similarly and equally apparent or matching iconographical scheme, although in some cases it is.  Certain elements are narrative, others complexly symbolic.  But as all the elements, with the exception of certain architectural and decorative motifs, are more or less realistically representational they are open to subjective interpretation, as in much Renaissance art, depending on what the spectator thinks he sees, and hence what subjects he recognizes, related to his education, culture, and memory, and on the viewer’s various inclinations to interpret what he sees as narration, symbolism, and allegory.  With so many elements involved the number of relationships that can be found seems almost endless, and it is probable that this openness toward the possibility of discovering innumerable relationships, thematic and visual, was intentional on the part of those who devised the program of the gallery, including Rosso, for while the large number of discrete scenes and figures and things described, including architectural and decorative details, had to be determined in some manner before they were actually drawn, painted, and modeled, only some of their relationships had to be precisely calculated to produce the appearance of many more.  When, as study shows, the number and kinds of literary and visual sources drawn upon are so varied, and so diversely associated, the issue of iconographical meaning becomes a complex one.  So complex, in fact, that immediately after the gallery was complete Francis I seems to have needed help to explain it to the English ambassador Wallop.  A hundred years later the significance of the decoration has been to a great extent lost.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries attempts were made to designate the subjects of the decorations and their meanings, and these were more or less accepted in the nineteenth.  But within the last fifty years significant research has led to a general consensus on the gallery’s prescribed iconographical significance, or at least to an accumulation of facts and interpretations that suggest the possible realms in which this meaning exists.  This research by Terrasse, Barocchi, Lövgren, Alleau and Destanque, Dora and Erwin Panofsky, Guerts, Pressouyre, Chastel, McAllister Johnson, Béguin, Zerner, and Joukovsky, forms the basis of much of what follows.

Only one sixteenth century document related to the decoration of the gallery gives any indication of what is, or what was intended to be, represented there.  A record of payments to painters and other workers of 28 August 1533 – for preparing the walls? – states that the “seigneur a nagueres ordonné estre pourtraict et painct plusieurs histoires anciennes et modernes” for “sa grant gallerye.”  But this statement, unfortunately, could mean almost any kind of stories.  Elsewhere the room is designated always as the “gallerie” or the “grande gallerie” without any other specification that might suggest something of the nature of the subjects of its decoration.  It is, however, already referred to as the “Galleria del Re” in the 1550 edition of Vasari’s Lives, but the only subjects mentioned are of the “due quadri d’un Bacco & d’una Venere.”  In the 1568 Lives Vasari does not give a name to the gallery, but mentions again the two paintings of “un Baccho, & una Venere” and of “un Cupido, e Venere con altre belle figure” as done in oil, given to the king and placed at the ends of the gallery, adding that the gallery had “(se bene ho inteso il vero) circa venti quattro storie, a fresco, credo, de i fatti d’Allesandro Magno” as well as decorative details of “un Satiro, che lieva una parte d’un padiglione” and “un putto a cavallo supra un’ Orso bellissimo.”  The reference to Alexander the Great seems to show confusion with what Primaticcio painted in the Chambre de la Duchesse d’Étampes.  Cellini also referred to the gallery as the king’s gallery. T hese remarks by Vasari and Cellini connecting the gallery to the king would not alone necessarily give an indication of the content of the decorations of the room.  But as the top center of each compartment of the north and south sides of the gallery exhibits the royal salamander and another of Francis I’s symbols also appear elsewhere throughout the gallery, it is obvious that its decoration must be related quite seriously to him.  The other symbol used is the large letter “F” sometimes encircled with a crown, and it appears both alone and in association with the salamander.  But the two never appear intertwined or superimposed to form a single emblem.  While the “F” sometimes appears more than once on a wall, it is missing altogether from some of the compartments.  The salamander is never missing (although this is unclear for the east and west walls); on two, and perhaps three, walls the animal appears twice.  The salamander was adopted as a symbol by Francis I’s grandfather, Count Jean d’Angoulême, and was used by his son Count Charles, who seems to have added the fire in which the salamander, as used by Francis I, is placed, and the grains of wheat falling from the animal’s mouth that appear in some representations of the animal in the gallery.  Although the flaming salamander was used in 1504 on the reverse of a coin showing the young Francis’s profile on the other side, its employment as an emblem in the gallery need not merely signify him, but his grandfather and more certainly his father as well.  The “F” of course was personal to Francis I.  It is therefore possible that the decoration of the Gallery of Francis I, while it undoubtedly refers, and in certain instances very specifically, to the monarch himself, also has dynastic meaning beyond the individual claims of Francis and the vicissitudes of his life.  In this vein the iconographical program could possibly also make reference to his heir, at first the Dauphin Francis, who would unexpectedly die before the gallery was completed.  The Death of Adonis appears to refer to this personal tragedy.  In addition to the salamander and the “F” the fleur-de-lis is used four times in the gallery, to signify France, it would seem.

It has to be recalled that the earliest pictures painted for the gallery, and the only two apparently executed by Rosso himself, had mythological subjects.  These were the two upright oval oil paintings that decorated the center of the east and west walls, one showing Bacchus (or Bacchus and Venus), the other, Venus (or Cupid and Venus, Psyche and Cupid, or Venus, Psyche, and Cupid).  These pictures are lost but the gallery still has a variety of scenes, in painting and in stucco, that are mythological, including the Combat of Centaurs and Lapiths and the Death of Adonis, as well as the Danaë by Primaticcio.  Surmounted as these three scenes are by the royal salamander and associated with the emblematic “F,” these pictures, although they are mythological, must also be related to Francis I and the Angoulême line.  But their relationship to Francis I seems different from that suggested by the Unity of the State where the king actually appears, and by such a picture as the Royal Elephant where his presence is emblematically indicated on the trappings of the animal.

Two of the large pictures are related to the history of Troy: the Revenge of Nauplius and the Education of Achilles.  A third, the Twins of Catania, along with some of the elements that surround it, may also refer to Troy.  The Cremation of a Body, known from Fantuzzi’s print, possibly intended for the area now occupied by the Death of Adonis, may also be derived from Trojan history if it shows the Funeral of Hector.  One stucco scene, under the Royal Elephant, may be related to the legend or history of Alexander the Great.  In all of these representations some aspect of Francis I’s rôle as man and as monarch of France must be acknowledged.

It may, therefore, be possible to recognize five kinds of references in the gallery: personal, monarchic, dynastic, historic, and mythological, all of which must be related to Francis I, to the Angoulême line, and to France.  But what cannot be recognized is any clear demarcation of them into five discreet iconographical systems existing in some absolutely pre-determined order in relation to each other.  Once such a division and order is demanded the iconographical character of the gallery appears insufficient, for its real character is more often suggestive and multifaceted than explicit and single-minded.  The variety of its frames of reference and their relationship are at least as diverse as the decoration of the walls that presents them.  Hence it follows that an order not apparent in the visual aspects of the gallery should not be sought in its thematic content.  Also, the possibility should not be dismissed that the iconographical program of the gallery, outlined though it surely was at the beginning, developed in complexity and changed some in its character as it was given visual form.

Those who have studied the iconography of the gallery extensively, though they do not all agree, have presented these several frames of references in which an interpretation of the decoration of the gallery must be made (see LITERATURE above).  All who have dealt to some extent with the entirety of its iconography have recognized various kinds of order that connect the parts of the gallery: the pairing of the tripartite compartments or walls across from each other on the north and south sides that are also connected physically by the transverse beams; the division of the gallery into three parts of two bays each, not including the center bay; the division of the gallery into two parts of three bays each, at either side of the center; associations of the decorations of the walls next to each other; associations linking, in a concentric manner, bays I and VII, II and VI, and III and V; associations diagonally across the gallery from one end to the other; a diamond arrangement that originally embraced the four mythological paintings of the end walls, the middle of the south wall and the North Cabinet; and a zig-zag connection between the north and south walls of the east and west halves.  Some of these various kinds of order are created by the physical aspects of the architecture of the gallery, some by the disposition of the paintings and stuccoes, and some by immediately evident thematic relationships.  The interpretations of the gallery also range from a direct, although allegorical and symbolic, connection between what is represented and specific events in Francis I’s life, to an association of the decoration with more abstract and timeless qualities of Francis I as a monarch, of his reign, of his country and the empire, and of the culture that he supported.  The one kind of interpretation does not necessarily exclude the other for in some cases both seem possible in an ambivalent collaboration.  But it is possible that the meaning of the gallery was never actually devised, probably by such men as Guillaume Budé, Lazare de Baïf, Andrea Alciati, and Giulio Camillo Delminio, or known in the sixteenth century in the sense that modern investigations may tend to seek and define it, especially in regard to the number of artistic and literary associations and of cross-references within the gallery that have been seen.  The lack of full agreement (and sometimes too much unwarranted insistence) on the subjects of some of the scenes, such as whether or not the figure of Ajax appears in the fresco at III North, who the clothed woman attending Venus is in the fresco at I North, or what the scenes under the Royal Elephant and the Unity of the State represent, has led to some uncertainty as what then can be interpreted from them and from other parts to which they have been related.  In all the interpretations that have been proposed a certain selection of what is thought most important has been made at the expense of other details that might qualify the value of what was considered most significant.

So far I know no interpretations of the gallery that have considered the two small frescoes above the round stuccoes of the West Wall.  Nor have the copies of lost drawings and the prints made after lost drawings been used as extensively as they might to verify what appears in the frescoes especially, and in the case of such a fresco as the Revenge of Nauplius to discover perhaps more clearly what is intended by this scene.  Furthermore, modern interpretations have largely been made without considering the evolution of the conception of the gallery from what was devised in 1528 to what actually came into being, and in relation to what else was being done at the château, in particular the redesigning of the south façade of the gallery which caused the elimination of a cabinet planned for that side.  It was then that the Nymph of Fontainebleau was invented, and then abandoned.  Within these decisions to make these changes lies the evidence for a certain flexibility allowed for the program of the gallery.  The event of the death of the Dauphin in August 1535 also has its effect on what appeared in the gallery, prompting the scene of the Death of Adonis.

Although relationships of subject and form exist between the decoration of one wall area and another, the length of the gallery, its size and that of its wall areas, and the separation of the latter by large windows, make it virtually impossible to see more than one decorated compartment at a time.  The seat for two people originally placed across from each section of wall of the north and south sides made possible the contemplation of each wall area (and of conversation about it) quite independently from the rest of the room.  Recollections of the formal and thematic content of the one area in the context of another were certainly intended but as parts of two separate walls can barely be seen together or cannot be seen at all, not to mention the difficulty of even taking in together the compartments across from each other, there is substantial justification in reviewing the gallery first of all as a series of individual experiences aligned on the walls around one.  Only after the decorations of the gallery are fairly well known, wall for wall, can verification of the relationships between them be made, by moving from one wall to another.  However, this belongs to another level of experience which only more time in the gallery can produce.

Nevertheless, the need to understand the meaning of the gallery by accumulation is preceded by a sense of totality and unity from which to proceed.  As the doors at the west and east seem to have been concealed in the wainscoting and were not apparent in the center of the end walls, and so far as we know were not given any particular significance on the other side of these walls, entering the gallery was not itself a significant aspect of experiencing it.  Moving forward into the space of the gallery to find an appropriate vantage point was, and still is, the first objective upon entering it.  The order seen is that of a regular series of artistic “events,” almost like those of a Renaissance procession as it moved by and through a series of staged spectacles.  The length of the gallery and the sequence of lights from the windows on both sides invited the visitor to walk down it, but the benches also signaled stops.  It could not be clearly seen from either end that the center of the gallery was marked by a different arrangement, an entrance to the North Cabinet across from the most symmetrical compartment framing the Danaë.  But on the north side the center may have been sufficiently different to stimulate a sense that the gallery was divided into two halves of three bays each.  Certainly when the spectator reached the center its particular character would be noted.  From that moment the gallery would be experienced from a central orientation, where the bust of the king was placed above the entrance to the North Cabinet, and outward from that center.  It could then be experienced in any number of ways, to bring about any number of pleasures and intended and imagined understandings.