In legend Helen of Troy was the face that ‘launched a thousand ships’ championed in her desire and love for Prince Paris of Troy by Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of desire.
Her divine duty was to make love and inspire others to do so.
In reality however over the centuries physical beauty brought fame for many women, especially during the reign of the Ancien Regime in France when a few women effectively used their beauty, and very powerful connections to influence their age.
If beauty was accompanied by intelligence those who used both attributes skilfully seemed to have been the most successful. Sixteenth century beauty Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566) was considered an ‘ardent feminist sure of her own worth – and a child of her time’. She had all the attributes a successful woman needs including a strong will and great strength of purpose.
These were very necessary skills for survival in the world of political intrigue that surrounded the court of the last medieval and first Renaissance King of France Francois I (1494-1547).
He reduced the feudal nobles independence centralising a great part of the power and wealth of the kingdom in his own hands, taking the first step in the process of absolutism, a hallmark of the French court over the next two hundred years. Initially his court was mobile, spending much of its time in the valley of the Loire where the hunting was superb.
The envy of Europe, and most particularly of England’s Henry VIII (1491-1547), Francois wanted to elevate himself above his rival in all things.
Diane aligned herself with the Roman Goddess Diana (Greek Goddess Artemis) the huntress of mythology, adopting the crescent moon as her emblem.
Wearing black and white became the symbol of her loyalty to her husband and a statement of her own personal style. As it also represented the bright and dark sides of the moon it was more than appropriate.
Born on New Year’s Eve in 1499 Diane’s blood and destiny was linked with the powerful Royal House of Bourbon.
She was sent away from her family when she was six years old to the Chateau of Saint Vallier to be educated at the house of a kinswoman.
This was the custom for all high born children. Her tutor was Anne, Duchess of Bourbon (1461-1522) a daughter of King Louis XI who educated Diane regarding the ‘dignity of her rank, the deportment that became it, a finesse of mind, delicacy of taste and an awareness of the traditions of which she was to become an unbending champion‘.
From Anne Diane also learned Latin, acquired a taste for fine books and grew up with a horror of the coquetries and cunning connivances particular to most of the woman of her age.
At sixteen her marriage was arranged for her, as was the custom for those of the nobility, with a French nobleman who was a grandson of King Charles VII of France. Louis de Brézé was Seigneur d’Anet, Comte de Maulevrier, Sénéchal of Normandy and Master of the Hunt.
He was forty years older than Diane, very powerful, very rich, but also very kind. They shared an interest in political ideals, a love of horse riding and had a seemingly happy marriage. His role as Sénéchal was one established during the Middle Ages. It was his responsibility to organise feasts, domestic ceremonies and act as King’s representative applying justice and administering the district of Normandy.
Diane particularly loved the exhilaration of riding to hounds with grooms, falconers and huntsmen clad in green, red and grey as well as ladies in velvet with plumed hats, boots of damasked leather and their skirts looped up above the knee all to the sound of bugles triumphant.
This vision of a beautiful women mounted on a fine horse, followed by a handsome greyhound determined her style.
Her complexion was described as ‘a clear pink with white skin, her hair chestnut, her eyes almond shaped and brown with an intelligent expression, full of enigma, the delicate nose slightly tilted, the chin pointed and thin, but well-shaped lips’.
She became a model from which the Renaissance took its nine laws of beauty:
Three things white; the skin, the teeth, the hands
Three black; the eyes, the eyebrows, the eyelashes
Three red: the lips, the cheeks, the nails
Three long; the body, the hair, the hands
Three short: the teeth, the ears, the feet
Three narrow: the mouth, the waist, the ankle
Three big: the arms, the thighs, the calf
Three small: the breast, the nose, the head
From childhood she safeguarded her complexion in a discipline that she maintained throughout her life. Rising at three in the morning she had a bath of cold water and then went on a long horse ride.
Following that it was back to bed for a period of solitude and relaxation while eating sparingly.
Rising late in the morning she would then give the rest of her day over to social life.
Her advantageous marriage brought her into the household of Queen Claude of France, the consort of Henry VIII’s rival, Francois I (1494-1547).
Diane entered wholeheartedly into public life, alert to the ambitions of the many ambitious opportunistic characters that surrounded the Queen and the King at Court. Francois’s court was one of magnificence.
The feasts were splendid, the nights lit by thousands of candles for balls while the days were adorned with military pageants. An ageing Leonardo da Vinci ordered the royal entertainments in this court of a Prince who surrounded himself with all the luminaries of the day.
The court of the Queen was faithful to tradition. Everything was modesty, decency and even austerity as surrounded by good works Queen Claude and her ladies spent most of her time completing projects. These involved spinning and making tapestry.
She lived apart from the King who visited her now and again. He gave her very little consideration and seven children. Francois 1 apparently kept an album of crayon sketches of the beautiful women at his court and next to Diane’s he wrote ‘Good to look on, pleasant to be with’.
Initially the court traveled about a great deal much of its time being spent hunting in the valley of the Loire where the game was excellent and Francois built the Chateau of Chambord.
This extraordinary piece of architecture is a unique example of what is known as the flamboyant Gothic style. It contained some 440 rooms served on two floors by 75 staircases and lit by 365 windows, its galleries resting on archways joining the corner towers.
The style of the court was heavily influenced by the fashions and styles from Italy, which had entered the period now known as the Renaissance. At this time all the European powers were seeking to gain control of the small independent states of Italy. France occupied Milan and Genoa and during the reign of Francois 1 courtiers were constantly coming and going reporting on what they had seen – the luxurious manner of living, the gardens, the dress and manners.
These were all real discoveries they were eager to share and imitate, especially a new style of interior decor, which took the form of sculpture or painted decoration.
Francois 1’s favourite palace was Fontainebleau, nearer to Paris where he finally moved and established the court in the middle of the century. Converted from a hunting lodge, Fontainebleau was charming and picturesque – famous for its interiors and its unique staircase.
The decoration work which featured both sculpture and painted decoration was carried out between 1533 and 40 by two Italian artists Giovanni Battista Rosso and Francesco Primaticcio.
When Diane was eighteen Francois second son was born on the last day of March 1518.
Henri, Duc d’Orleans was in the main ignored by his father during childhood in favour of his elder brother Francis, who was the Dauphin.
While he was growing up Diane had two daughters and in 1523 her family survived a treasonous act by her father against the crown her husband not knowing who was behind it denouncing the plot thereby saving the throne and his family.
The two princes at the ages of 7 and 9 were detained for nearly five years in Spain as hostages in exchange for their father in his continual struggles with Charles V.
In 1530 the Princes were released and Diane greeted them both. Henri, who was greatly distressed by his ordeal would remember her many kindnesses.
At a great fete and tournament held to honour their return, Henri was 12 and Diane 30 when he entered the lists wearing her colours of black and white. He saluted her and dedicated his first feats to her.
It is thought that around 1533 she took as her lover the young prince Henri, who was entirely devoted to her. Their liaison may have started as a calculated act, no one really knows, but it was to become one of the great love affairs of history; a lifelong relationship of passion and loyalty.
At her family chateau Anet in 1531 King Francois and Louis de Breze, who was now also Governor of Normandy plotted and planned to marry Henri to the Pope’s niece Catherine de Medici. A few days later, Louis de Breze fell permanently asleep at the age of 72.
He was given a funeral of great honour and Diane erected a mausoleum to him at Rouen, with the inscription
‘Louis de Breze, Diane grieving for the death of her husband has raised this sepulchre to thee. Once thy inseperable and most faithful wife, what she was in thy bed she will be in the tomb’.
Catherine de Medici had at fourteen on October 27, 1533 made her entry to France at Marseilles to the salute of three hundred guns.
Diane eclipsed the young Italian girl as Henri only had eyes for her and she gained ascendancy over the young bride, attracting her enmity.
Francois 1 also gave Diane the responsibility of assisting the youthful Catherine to learn the good fashions of France, which only deepened Catherine’s animosity.
War broke out again with Spain and the Dauphin was seized by a fever at Tournon after drinking iced water and died.
The Medici’s now had what they desired; a niece who would be Queen of France and Diane had as her lover, the man who would be King.
Diane bore Henri a child (Diane of France) refusing his offer to legitimize the birth. Henri has been described by some historians as a ‘dull lout’ interested only in jousting, tennis and physical exercise.
However it seems Diane was his soul mate.
They are a pair unique in history as it seems for her he was affectionate, sentimental, faithful and honest – a man who loved passionately, but only once.
Catherine failed to have a child for the first ten years of their marriage and it has often been presumed Diane, knowing the importance of a consort and heir, sent Henri every night to sleep with his wife who eventually had ten children.
In 1547 Francois died and Henri II of France ascended to the throne.
He was 30 years of age his mistress, the love of his heart 48.
This was the hour Diane’s crescent moon rose on the horizon and her enemies were reduced to silence.
Henri was of the Catholic faith as was Diane, and both were in complete harmony.
Blame for the persecution of the Protestants was laid at her door beginning a tradition where the current mistress or consort of the King became a convenient scapegoat for unpopular decisions.
On the day of his consecration Henri II wore a doublet enriched at the slashes with embroidery of pearls four fingers wide with three crescents intertwined carrying the cipher of the Double D linked and joined with an H affirming in the sight of all that before being a king he was a man, and that his lady was his only thought.
In 1548 he gave Diane Chenonceaux, a Chateau in the Loire, in memory of her late husband’s services to the crown. As well he invested her with the lands of Saint Vallier and the title Duchesse de Valentinois, Dame de Saint Vallier for life.
Her brother Guillaume died without an heir and she also inherited her father’s estates.
She was a woman of business as well as a woman of the court a faculty, which was to serve her well, and one poets would record. A whole series of documents testify to her able administration of her vast estates and she was informed and concerned about everything and everybody.
She secured advantageous marriages for her daughters, became allied with the six-year-old Mary Stuart and Henri entrusted her with the education of his children. She was all-powerful, and nothing would weaken the King’s devotion to her and the Queen was seemingly resigned to her fate.
At her Chateau of Anet Diane devoted herself to embellishing it as Henri wished. She engaged the architect Philibert De l’orme spent ten years carrying out her works. The son of a master stonemason he had lived at Rome for three years excavating and studying classical antiquity.
De l’orme was the first French architect in tune with the Italian masters but was also mindful of local conditions and materials.
He assimilated the orders of classical architecture into his work with great restraint and harmony that became characteristic of French classicism.
He had a great number of articles and quantities of materials brought from Paris to adorn the chateau. Henri also lent workmen and the royal arsenal for casting the great stag and dogs that crowned the portico of the entrance.
The main door of the Chateau is of the Doric order, adorned with four pillars based on the banks and slopes of the moat. At the sides over the small doors are terraces enriched with black marble and strapwork decoration.
Above the door a clock dial to mark and show the hours inside the Chateau, the signs of the zodiac, the daily movement of the moon and of the planets, with the chime that sounds before the hours, half hours and quarters, by the baying of four hounds instead of bells,
Along the roof ridge ran Diane’s celestial ensign a crest of crescents, the knocker on the door a crescent upon a triangle.
The locks displayed the royal arms with crescents but in order to symbolize that her faithfulness to her husband had been unbroken and that this liaison had come after her widowhood, above a statue to him above the door she placed the inscription ‘To Breze, the most grateful Diane, his wife, erected this monument, that the memory of her husband might endure’.
The fabulous fountain of Diana the Huntress in the grounds at Anet, now restored and in the Louvre at Paris*.
Her gardens were laid out by Jehan Nicole who lived at Anet and it is believed that Benoist le Boucher may have cast the bronzes.
At 51 Diane was still lovely, a description of her in correspondence attending a marriage ceremony in Piedmont records
‘Diana hunting with her companions the forest maidens, held in her hand a rich Turkish bow, the quiver hanging by her side arrayed in the costume of a nymph her body clad in a doublet with six great round flounces of black cloth and gold sewn with silver stars; the sleeves and the rest of crimson satin were covered with pearls and embroideries; her hair braided with great strings of rich pearls and quantities of precious stones and jewels of great worth with above her forehead a little silver crescent gleaming with tiny diamonds’.
Throughout the chateau the crescent moon linked with the letters D and H were used as a decorative device, including on the floors and wainscoting.
The tapestries on the walls reproduce fragments of the history of the Patroness, the Goddess Diana.
For Henri II Diane created a magic circle of which she was the enchantress and, without question, the most sumptuous person in Europe. Her inherited and acquired wealth earned her the hatred of many, and her management of it their respect.
In her bedroom like all high born women of her time she knew that to offset the whiteness of her skin she should lie on a bed covered in black satin sheets to add to her allure.
Intelligence and beauty assured that her glory and the luxury that surrounded her confirmed it. Born with the external signs of sovereignty she remained faithful to all its forms.
On June 30, 1559 his opponent’s lance struck the King aged 40 through the eye during a tournament. He survived for 11 days and despite being treated by two of the most distinguished physicians of the Renaissance Ambroise Paré and Andreas Vesalius, he suffered a tortuous death.
Diane’s star was eclipsed as Catherine sought her revenge, barring her from the bedchamber where he died arranging for his enshrinement in a cenotaph on which she placed an inscription bearing only her name. She sent Mary Stuart who loved Diane back to her native mists, seemingly sacrificing her daughter in-law to her resentment.
Diane however had planned her retreat well. When Catherine claimed Chenonceaux, without a legal right to it but offering her Château de Chaumnot in return she graciously accepted and retired into the bosom of her family.
With her they say that the smile of the court disappeared. Her prudence had served her well, her retreat was very dignified and she was secure and found consolation in the privacy and seclusion of her new life and faithful friendships.
When she died at Anet on April 25, 1566 at sixty-six years of age her children wept for her loss and built her a handsome mausoleum.
‘Pray God for Diane de Poitiers’ is the phrase she laid down to be said at the services she ordered.
She had been kind to her husband to whom she had been faithful, kind to her daughters whom she had made rich. She had loved a King who had adored and respected her and made her happy. She was an example of great energy with a heritage of beauty exalted in France and became one of its glories.
Leonardo’s da Vinci’s wise formula may have been her guide: ‘That thou hast acquired in thy youth stays the damage of old age, and if thou dost understand that wisdom is the food of the eld so do that thine old age may not lack sustenance’.
Diana de Poitiers, moon mistress, was quite simply a woman for all time.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010 – 2015
*Paris – Information Musée du Louvre: Fountaine de Diane
This sculpture once surmounted the monumental La Fontaine de Diane (The Fountain of Diana). It dates to the mid-16th Century where it was originally placed in the courtyard of the château d’Anet (Château of Anet), built by Philibert de L’Orme for Diane de Poitiers, Henry II’s mistress. In the 18th century, the fountain was moved to the nymphaeum before being confiscated during the Revolution when it was transferred to the Musée des Monuments Français in 1798. In 1799-1800, it was restored by Pierre-Nicolas Beauvallet and placed in the museum’s Elysée Garden. It was then claimed by the duchess of Orléans, owner of the Château of Anet at the time of the Revolution and finally allocated to the Louvre at Paris by ministerial decree in 1819.
The sculpture depicts a semi-reclining Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, accompanied by her two dogs Phrocyon and Cyrius, clearly depicted as a greyhound and a water spaniel. She has one arm around the neck of a majestic stag.
The elongated, naked silhouette of the chaste goddess, whose beauty had always been admired, became a symbol of the French Renaissance. The artist to whom the sculpture is owed remains a mystery. Its traditional attribution to Jean Goujon, which is not accepted today dates back to the French Revolution and was put forward by Alexandre Lenoir, founder of the Musée des Monuments Français. Since then, the sculpture has been attributed, in turn, to Benvenuto Cellini, Germain Pilon, Pierre Bontemps, and Ponce Jacquiot.
This figure instantly recalls the Nymph of Fontainebleau, a high relief sculpted by Benvenuto Cellini for Francis I, which L’Orme placed above the doorway of château d’Anet between 1551 and 1555, transforming the nymph into Diana. Without being an actual portrait, the figure is evocative of Diane de Poitiers. Cellini specified the stag in his relief represented Francis I, which makes it tempting to think the stag here symbolizes Henry II, Diane de Poitier’s lover.