The Salamander

This is a reprint of an original article published on Department of History's blog, written by Caroline Godard.

When I think of the Galerie François Ier at the château de Gizeux, I first remember the large mantelpiece anchored along one wall, and how the deep brown painted paneling is patterned with soft shades of gray and blue and yellow and red that dance across the wood. Depicted at the very top of the mantelpiece is a slender four-legged animal surrounded by flames. When I asked visitors to identify this animal, they often couldn’t. Perhaps it looked distorted to them because it was too high up on the mantelpiece, or perhaps the contrast between the grayish animal and the murky blue background wasn’t strong enough.

This animal is a salamander, and when analyzed together with several other symbols, it indicates that the mantelpiece represents King Francis I’s personal device. The salamander was the French king’s personal symbol, and above it rests a golden crown, alluding to his connection to the monarchy. And, in a typical Renaissance combination of text and image, we find emblazoned just above the fireplace King Francis’s Latin motto: nutrisco et extingo: je nourris le bon feu et j’éteins le mauvais feu. In English, this means that “I nourish the good fire and extinguish the bad.”

Francis I (1494-1547) was a sixteenth-century French king who is credited with bringing the Italian Renaissance to France. He reigned from 1515 until his death in 1547, and the Renaissance movement’s migration to France can be traced to Francis I’s involvement in the Italian Wars, during which he battled other European powers for control of the Italian peninsula. However, the war also allowed Francis I to establish contacts with several influential Italian artists and writers. Most famously, Leonardo da Vinci came to live and work in the Loire valley under Francis I’s patronage.

The mantelpiece with Francis I’s symbol is located at the château de Gizeux, a castle in the Loire valley. While the paneling in the room dates to the early seventeenth century, this mantelpiece was added during the nineteenth century, about two hundred years later. It was copied after an older stone mantelpiece located in an older part of the château. After learning about Francis’s symbol at Gizeux, I noticed this salamander popping up elsewhere in the Loire valley, like at the château de Chambord and château de Blois, several of Francis I’s residences that I toured on one of my days off.

For the month of July, I was a tour guide at the Gizeux castle in the Loire valley of France. I was the only American there, and the four other interns with whom I worked—Emeline, Juliette, Keltia and Marie, all students around my age—were French. Although we only knew each other for a short while, we quickly became inseparable, first by necessity and then by choice. We worked together, ate together and slept in the same bedroom, but then in the evenings after the château’s closure we would do everything together, too. Sometimes we would leave Gizeux and go out to dinner in the towns of Bourgeuil or Langeais, and once we picnicked at a park in Candes Saint-Martin, where we watched the sun set over the Loire river.

The Galerie François I was upstairs, right next to the area of the castle where we lived. Every morning after breakfast, we interns would split up to prepare the château for the influx of visitors soon to arrive. Some of us would open the first-floor salons, others would handle the gift shop, and one or two of us would always have to “check the Galerie François Ier.” Normally the gallery was already orderly, so we didn’t have to do much more than straighten the table and chairs into its usual arrangement. During this time of the morning, the weak sunlight would filter through the huge windows facing the enclosed garden out back. I was rarely alone in that room, but whenever I was everything felt very gloomy and still.

The château de Gizeux’s Renaissance owners were the du Bellay family, a very powerful and well-known noble line with connections to the Catholic church and French government. Francis I’s device is painted above the mantelpiece because he visited the château twice for two of the family’s marriages. The du Bellays thus added Francis’s symbol to commemorate the king’s presence, which was a great honor.

I always loved explaining the Galerie François I to visitors because I was fascinated by the du Bellay family history. A year ago, I had studied several poems written by another du Bellay family member, Joachim du Bellay, in a French literature course at Miami University. Joachim du Bellay never lived at Gizeux—it belonged to another branch of his family—but while at Gizeux, I tried to learn as much as I could about him. Most of my research was rudimentary, limited to quick Google searches (there was no cell phone service in the château, and the only WiFi hotspot was in our bedroom).

Joachim du Bellay, I learned, was a sixteenth-century Renaissance French poet from the Loire valley region of France. At the time of du Bellay’s birth in 1522, King Francis I had been reigning for the past six years and France had been at war with Italy off and on for the past twenty-eight years. In 1549, when Joachim du Bellay was 27, he wrote the Defense and Illustration of the French Language, a text promoting the use of the French vernacular in scientific and literary works. In this text, Joachim du Bellay argues that French writers need to create a new style of poetry inspired by classical works, that they should work to enrich the French vocabulary while also imitating ancient Greek and Roman writers.

This text is now considered the manifesto of a group of Parisian poets called La Pléiade, and Joachim du Bellay was one of the Pléiade’s principal members. These poets were humanists, and they drew inspiration from the classics, including ancient Greek and Latin languages, literature and history. Several of the seven Pléiade poets, including Joachim du Bellay and Pierre de Ronsard, popularized the form of the Petrarchan sonnet in France. The Petrarchan sonnet originated in Italy, and it is a fourteen-line poem with a specific rhyme scheme that is divided into two stanzas. The first stanza has eight lines, so it is an octave, and the second has six, so it is a sestet. By innovating the French language, Joachim du Bellay continued the literary, artistic and philosophical Renaissance movement that Francis I had brought to France.

In my French literature class, we studied several of du Bellay’s poems from The Ruins of Rome, a collection of poems that Joachim du Bellay wrote upon his arrival in Rome in 1553. He was in Rome with his cousin, the cardinal Jean du Bellay. These poems are melancholic, and Joachim confronts his past illusion of Rome—which was largely informed by Latin literature and language that he had been studying—with the real Rome that he is surprised and somewhat disappointed to see in front of him. In The Ruins of Rome, Joachim du Bellay expresses his longing for a city that doesn’t exist anymore, or perhaps for a city that never truly existed.

Gizeux’s archives were destroyed during the French Revolution, so it is difficult to know whether Joachim du Bellay ever visited the castle. Sometimes I wondered why I was so interested in Joachim du Bellay, since it is doubtful that he was ever connected to Gizeux. However, despite this ambiguity, I liked that here at Gizeux my connection to Joachim du Bellay felt more concrete than it ever had before. I had previously studied Joachim’s rhyme schemes and stanzas, but now his poetry felt more tangible, connected to the history of objects and people that I talked about every day.

Before my arrival at Gizeux, Renaissance France was an abstract idea formed by the literature and history that I had read about at home in Oxford, Ohio, thousands of miles away. I loved my idealized image of France, but this summer I realized that it was something I had built myself. Like Joachim du Bellay’s Rome, it didn’t really exist, and probably never did.

Early in July, Emeline, the head intern, took us to see the decaying vieux château, the oldest and most dilapidated part of the castle. The interior is so unstable that visitors are forbidden from entering, but sometimes the interns and the de Laffon family’s children—the de Laffons are the owners and managers of the castle—would hang out in “le vieux château” for fun.

Emeline wanted to show us the original Francis I mantelpiece, which was on the second floor. She led us up the crumbling stairs, which felt dark and dangerous and narrow, and then guided us to our left for the clearest view of the old stone object.

“You can take pictures, but don’t show them to anyone. This part of the château isn’t open to visitors,” Emeline reminded us.

I opened my iPhone and took a picture of the mantelpiece, mostly because I knew that I would probably never see it again. Then I took two more photos, from a distance this time, so I could see Francis I’s Latin motto and the salamander symbol represented above. In contrast to the restored mantelpiece in the Galerie François I, this image was duller, the paint was fainter and less vibrant.

As I look at these photographs now, I also remember everything that isn’t contained in the images, like how I was casually nervous that the floor would cave in, and how the space smelled musty and weird and was obviously rarely used. I remember Marie’s and Keltia’s quiet excitement, and how I was quiet, too, partly because I was still a little shy speaking French but mostly because I just didn’t have anything to say.

Interning at Gizeux felt like living in another world and, in a way, it was. I have many pictures from my summer, some of which I cannot share and others that I probably never will. Sometimes, absentmindedly, I scroll through all of these images on my phone and wonder what I will do with them. Will I ever delete these images? Or, if I keep them, will they slowly become less significant to me, buried in my iPhone camera roll under everything else in the world that I deem worthy of documentation?

I have a few pictures of the Galerie François I, and I know that I could find more online if I wanted. On my last day at Gizeux, Keltia and held a mini photo shoot for ourselves, which began seriously but then quickly grew sarcastic. We took pictures of each other inside all of the salons and galleries, documenting our relationship to the rooms we knew so well.

I still have those pictures on my phone, too. But when I think of the Galerie François I at the château de Gizeux, that photo shoot with Keltia isn’t what I immediately remember. Instead, all I can think of is the combination of colors on the huge patterned mantelpiece, and of how excited I was every time someone recognized that the painting of a grayish flaming animal was Francis I’s salamander. I am fascinated now more than ever by everything that I cannot see.