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Catherine De Medici

Catherine De Medici

Catherine de’ Medici was an Italian noblewoman. She also was queen consort of France from 1547 until 1559, by marriage to King Henry II, and mother of kings Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III. The years during which her sons reigned have been called “the age of Catherine de’ Medici” as she had extensive, if at times varying, influence in the political life of France.

Early Life

Catherine was born in Florence to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, and Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne. In 1533 at the age of fourteen, Catherine married Henry, second son of King Francis I and Queen Claude of France. Catherine’s marriage was arranged by her uncle Pope Clement VII. Henry excluded Catherine from participating in state affairs and instead showered favours on his chief mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who wielded much influence over him. Henry’s death in 1559 thrust Catherine into the political arena as mother of the frail 15-year-old King Francis II. When Francis II died in 1560, she became regent on behalf of her 10-year-old son King Charles IX and was thus granted sweeping powers. After Charles died in 1574, Catherine played a key role in the reign of her third son, Henry III. He dispensed with her advice only in the last months of her life and outlived her by seven months.

Catherine’s three sons reigned in an age of almost constant civil and religious war in France. The problems facing the monarchy were complex and daunting. However, Catherine was able to maintain the monarchy and the state institutions functioning—even at a minimum level. At first, Catherine compromised and made concessions to the rebelling Calvinist Protestants, or Huguenots, as they became known. However, she failed to fully grasp the theological issues that drove their movement. Later she resorted (in frustration and anger) to hard-line policies against them. In return, she came to be blamed for the excessive persecutions carried out under her sons’ rule, and in particular, for the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572, during which time thousands of Huguenots were killed both in Paris and throughout France.

Some historians have excused Catherine from blame for the worst decisions of the crown, though evidence for her ruthlessness can be found in her letters. In practice, her authority was always limited by the effects of the civil wars. Therefore, her policies may be seen as desperate measures to keep the Valois monarchy on the throne at all costs and her patronage of the arts as an attempt to glorify a monarchy (whose prestige was in steep decline). Without Catherine, it is unlikely that her sons would have remained in power. According to Mark Strage, one of her biographers, Catherine was the most powerful woman in 16th-century Europe.

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Patron of the Arts

Catherine believed in the humanist ideal of the learned Renaissance prince whose authority depended on letters as well as arms. She was inspired by the example of her father-in-law, King Francis I of France, who had hosted the leading artists of Europe at his court, and by her Medici ancestors. In an age of civil war and declining respect for the monarchy, she sought to bolster royal prestige through lavish cultural display. Once in control of the royal purse, she launched a programme of artistic patronage that lasted for three decades. During this time, she presided over a distinctive late French Renaissance culture in all branches of the arts.

The legend that de’ Medici introduced a long list of foods, techniques and utensils from Italy to France for the first time is a myth routinely discredited by most food historians. Barbara Ketcham Wheaton and Stephen Mennell provided the definitive arguments against these claims. They point out that Catherine’s father-in-law, King Francis I, and the flower of the French aristocracy had dined at some of Italy’s most élite tables during the king’s Italian campaigns (and that an earlier generation had done so during King Charles VIII’s invasion of 1494); that a vast Italian entourage had visited France for the wedding of Catherine de’ Medici’s father to her French-born mother; and that she had little influence at court until her husband’s death because he was so besotted by his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. In fact, a large population of Italians—bankers, silk-weavers, philosophers, musicians, and artists, including Leonardo da Vinci—had emigrated to France to promote the burgeoning Renaissance. Nevertheless, popular culture frequently attributes Italian culinary influence and forks in France to Catherine.

The earliest known reference to Catherine as the popularizer of Italian culinary innovation is the entry for “cuisine” in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie published in 1754, which describes haute cuisine as decadent and effeminate and explains that fussy sauces and fancy fricassees arrived in France via “that crowd of corrupt Italians who served at the court of Catherine de’ Medici.”

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