A maiolica masterpiece

Translated by Liz Carey Libbrecht.

In addition to thousands of ancient books, the precious collections of the Collège de France heritage library contain a number of objects, including busts of Francis I, the institution’s founder. One of these stands out for its workmanship: it is a maiolica bust, a nineteenth-century copy made of a Della Robia original.

Although many portraits of Francis I exist, the one at the Collège de France is remarkable, despite being only a copy. The delicacy of the ruler’s features contrasts sharply with the image of the king that has remained in the collective unconscious, namely that of an imposing man with somewhat harsh features.

The story of the original bust behind the copy began in Renaissance France. It then experienced a turbulent fate typical of the vicissitudes and displacements undergone by heritage assets over the previous centuries.

It all started during the reign of Francis I. The bust was most likely commissioned by the king to reward Louis Prévost de Sansac, one of his faithful servants, for his loyalty. Sansac, born in 1488 in Cognac1, was one of the king’s first comrades in arms, responsible for developing his physical talents at hunting and the art of war. During their youth, the two of them honed their skills in the use of weapons and combat techniques, and formed a joyful group:


We are four gentlemen of Guyenne”, the king would say, “who entered the lists and run the ring against anyone in France: myself, Sansac, d’Essé and Chastaigneraye”2 .

Sansac later participated at the king’s side in the Italian Wars as the page of Anne de Montmorency, Marshal of France.

Taken prisoner along with the king during the Battle of Pavia in 1525, he managed to escape and rally his faction. During the entire time the king was held captive, he made regular trips between Italy, Spain, and France as the emissary of Queen Louise of Savoy to negotiate with the Spaniards. His efforts would lead to the Treaty of Madrid and the king’s release.

As a sign of his gratitude, upon his return from captivity, Francis I appointed Sansac guardian of the children of France, whom he would instruct regarding the fundamentals of horseback riding, combat, and hunting, which was still an essential pastime of the aristocracy. He was also named Grand Falconer of France.

It was most likely the proximity of the royal residence and the vast forests of Touraine that led Louis de Sansac to build his manor near Loches in 1529. It was constructed in the style of the First Renaissance and presented a composite way of transitioning between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as was evidenced in certain architectural archaisms: an asymmetrical facade, numerous high gables that gave it the appearance of a castle, and a staircase with a turret. The manor was visited by guests of note: the king visited several times to see his friend, as did Charles V, who was given accommodation there on 12 December 1539 at the time of the planned meeting between the two rival sovereigns.

It was during the construction of the manor that the king gifted the varnished terracotta bust depicting him to Sansac. It was set in the facade above the entrance, both to proclaim the owner’s allegiance to the king and to show that the residence enjoyed the king’s favour3.

The statue was inserted in a cartouche surrounded by the following text: “Francis de Valois, King of France, the first of his name, age 34.” It so happened that this was precisely the moment of the appointment of the first lecteurs royaux and of the establishment of the teachings of the Collège de France. The bust therefore depicts the Collège’s founder at the precise time the institution was created.

This bust is possibly the last existing specimen of a commission by Francis I, intended for those close to him, according to the preferred hypothesis of Thierry Crépon-Leblond, curator of the Musée National de la Renaissance in Écouen4.

The varnished terracotta work was created using a technique of the renowned Florentine Della Robbia family. This unique know-how is seen in the works of Lucca (1400-1482), Andrea (1435-1525), and Giovanni (1469-1529), which are on display in Florence and other museums across the globe. The work of the Della Robbia family has been analysed in minute detail by the laboratory of the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France.

The maiolica technique was inspired by imported Spanish faience pottery from the region of Valencia, and from the town of Manises5 in particular. The name maiolica, which refers to the Island of Majorca, stemmed from confusion at the time regarding the precise origins of the pottery. In view of the success of these products, Italian artisans created a local supply. Maiolica is basically a type of pottery: a clay paste covered in enamel that is glazed and fired6.

Several types of modelling were used, depending on the pieces to produce: the pottery wheel was used for plates and cups, whereas plaster moulds were used for more complex pieces. The first firing at 1000° was followed by glazing, which required an excellent knowledge of colours and their transformation during the second firing at 900°, which stabilized the materials and hues. Colours varied from white (lead-based) to yellow (cadmium-based), blue (cobalt-based), or purple and brown (manganese-based).

The creator of the bust was probably Girolamo Della Robbia, employed at the time by Francis I on the construction of the Château de Madrid in the Bois de Boulogne. This sumptuous project sponsored by Francis I was entrusted to the master stonemasons Pierre Gadier and Gatien François7. Girolamo Della Robbia created beautiful and detailed decorations made of glazed terracotta (terracotta invetriata) and reliefs, covering its entire facade. We do not know who designed the buildings’ blueprints, but the famous architect Philibert Delorme and Primaticcio completed the work. The new royal residence was one of the favourite Parisian abodes of Charles IX and Catherine de’ Medici, but experienced a rapid decline starting during the reign of Henry III. Its conditions rapidly deteriorated and the castle was ultimately destroyed in 1792. Today, all that remains is a stone chapiter and a few fragments of Della Robbia’s decorations, which are conserved at the Musée Carnavalet and the Musée National de la Céramique in Sèvres.

Blueprint of the Château “de Madrid”

View of a fireplace and mantlepiece at the Château “de Madrid”

The bust depicting Francis I is therefore an important example of the Florentine maiolica trend during the Renaissance. The application of ceramic techniques to sculpting, which was behind the success of the Della Robbia family workshop, allowed extremely lively and delicate portraits, like that of the monarch, to be created. The king is represented in his prime, with long hair and a short, pointed beard; he is wearing an ornate doublet that reveals the top of his chest, and on his head an ornate toque of feathers that adds a great deal of freshness, delicacy, and spirituality to the portrait, which is probably the most accurate in terms of the king’s physiognomy. It was because of this delicacy that the specialist Louis Gonse8 attributed the sculpture to portrait artist Jean Clouet, before it was irrefutably identified as the work of the Florentine artist. The bust remained at the entry to the manor well after the death of the king and his friend Louis Prévost de Sansac. In 1877 the castle’s new owner, the Marquis of Bridieu, had repairs done and new additions built on. He decided to remove the bust so that it was not exposed to the weather and to conserve it in his chambers. At the time, he ordered the creation of a stone copy of the cartouche and the elements surrounding it, which he placed on the facade in the same location as the original, indicated by an engraving dating back to 1866, presenting the bust and its surrounding texts (a portion of these texts have been erased).

Image taken from the Album de l’exposition rétrospective de Tours (1890) (click to view online)

The original was put on exhibition during a retrospective organized in 1890 in Tours by the Société d’Archéologie. The marquis attributed it to Bernard de Palissy9, unaware that Girolamo Della Robbia had worked in the region at the time of the construction of the Château de Madrid.

In 1892 the Marquis of Bridieu died10. and in 1899 the manor and its furniture were auctioned. On 25 June 1899 the bust was purchased at the Hôtel Drouot by the eminent American collector Georges Blumenthal for 15,000 francs (approximately €58,00011).Like several of his contemporaries, the banker gifted his entire collection to the Metropolitan Museum of New York in 1941. The bust of Francis I thus definitively left France, like a number of works of art during that period when heritage did not receive the same attention that it does now. In 1943 the museum organized an exceptional exhibition of the Blumenthal Collection that included the bust. In 1949 a cast was taken by Italian artists for the Musée de Fontainebleau, and an additional cast was taken for the Musée de Chambord and the Musée des Monuments Français. The bust at the Collège de France belongs to this very limited series. Despite our research, it has not been possible to establish the conditions under which and the exact date on which the bust became a part of our collections. The presence of this object nevertheless highlights the Collège’s profound and singular ties to the ruler to which it owes its creation. On the institution’s 400th anniversary, echoing the sixteenth-century tradition, another bust of Francis I was chosen to decorate the facade and preside over the festivities.

Glass plate of the 400th anniversary of the Collège de France, 1931 (click to access the collection)

Licence Creative Commons
Ce(tte) œuvre est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution – Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale – Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International

Citer ce billet
Carmen Alemany (2020, 8 octobre). A maiolica masterpiece. Colligere. Consulté le 24 avril 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/bdcx

  1. Véronique Lourme, Bulletin des Amis du Pays Lochois, n° 31, 2015. []
  2. Jean Chrétien Ferdinand Hoefer, Nouvelle biographie universelle depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu’à nos jours, avec les renseignements bibliographiques et l’indication des sources à consulter, t. 36, Paris, Firmin-Didot, 1852, p. 83. URL : https://archive.org/details/nouvellebiograph36hoef/page/n53 []
  3. Sarah Munoz, « Le portrait royal sculpté en médaillon en France aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles : de François Ier à Louis XIV », Les Cahiers de Framespa, n° 11, 2012. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/framespa/1953. []
  4. Bulletin des Amis du Pays Lochois, n° 31, 2015. []
  5. François Barbe, Majolique : l’âge d’or de la faïence italienne au XVIe siècle, Paris, Citadelles & Mazenod, 2016. []
  6. Federica Carta (dir.), Émail et terre cuite à Florence : les œuvres des Della Robbia au musée national de la Renaissance, Paris, RMN, 2018. []
  7. Camillo Jacopo Cavallucci et Émile Molinier, Les Della Robbia d’après des documents inédits suivi d’un catalogue de l’œuvre des Della Robbia en Italie et dans les principaux musées de l’Europe : leur vie et leur œuvre, Paris, J. Rouam, 1884. []
  8. Louis Gonse, La Sculpture française : depuis le XIVe siècle, Paris, Librairie imprimeries réunies, 1895. []
  9. Léon Palustre, Album de l’exposition rétrospective de Tours (1890), publié sous les auspices de la Société́ archéologique de Touraine, Tours, Société́ archéologique de Touraine, 1891. URL : https://archive.org/details/albumdelexpositi00palu/page/n83. []
  10. Le buste de François Ier, in Cl. Lablancherie, Bulletin des Amis du Pays Lochois, n° 2, décembre 1986, p. 111-121. []
  11. Source : https://www.insee.fr/fr/information/2417794 []

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