Francis I is considered to be France's first Renaissance monarch. His reign saw France make immense cultural advances. He was a contemporary of Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire, with whom he was allied in a Franco-Ottoman alliance, as well as of Henry VIII of England and of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, his great rivals.
Francis I, the only son of Charles, Count of Angoulême, and of Louise of Savoy, was born at the Château de Cognac , Cognac (c. 400 km southwest of Paris), in the modern French department of Charente, in the province of Saintonge which was part of the former Duchy of Aquitaine. His father was the first cousin of King Louis XII.
In 1506, and by instigation of Louis XII, young Francis was betrothed to his own second cousin Claude of France, the daughter of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany, and heiress of the Duchy of Brittany. The marriage took place on 18 May 1514. Because of the Salic Law that excluded women from succeeding to the throne of France, the throne passed to Francis I at the death of Louis XII of France, as he was a male-line great-great-grandson of Charles V of France and the descendant of the eldest surviving male line of the Capetian Dynasty. Claude, Duchess of Brittany, became queen consort of France.
In 1515 Francis was crowned King of France in the Cathedral of Reims. Despite being only twenty-years old, he already had unprecedented humanist credentials. While his two predecessors, Charles VIII and Louis XII, had spent much of their reigns concerned with Italy they did not much embrace the new intellectual movements coming out of it. Both monarchs continued in the same patterns of behavior that had dominated the French monarchy for centuries. They are considered the last of the medieval French monarchs, but they did lay the groundwork for the Renaissance to come into full swing in France.
Contact between the French and Italians in the long running series of wars under Charles VIII and Louis XII had brought new ideas to France by the time the young Francis was receiving his education. Thus a number of his tutors, such as Desmoulins, his Latin instructor, and Christophe de Longueil were schooled in the new ways of thinking and they attempted to imbue Francis with it. Francis' mother also had a great interest in Renaissance art, which she passed down to her son. One certainly cannot say that Francis received a humanist education; most of his teachers had not yet been affected by the Renaissance. One can, however, state that he clearly received an education more oriented towards humanism than any previous French king.
By the time Francis ascended the throne in 1515, the Renaissance had clearly arrived in France, and Francis was an important supporter of the change. He became a major patron of the arts and lent his support to many of the greatest artists of his time and encouraged them to come to France. Some did work for him, including such greats as Andrea del Sarto, and Leonardo da Vinci, whom Francis convinced to leave Italy in the last part of his life. While Leonardo did little painting in his years in France, he brought with him many of his great works, such as the Mona Lisa, known in France as La Joconde, and these stayed in France upon his death.
Other major artists, whom Francis employed, include the goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, and the painters Rosso, Romano and Primaticcio, all of whom were heavily employed in decorating Francis' various palaces and exceedingly loyal. Francis employed a number of agents in Italy who endeavoured to procure artworks by Italian masters such as Michelangelo, Titian, and Raphael and ship them to France. These agents had some notable successes, even if plans to try to move Leonardo's Last Supper to France proved impractical. When Francis ascended the throne, the royal palaces were decorated with only a scattering of great paintings, and not a single piece of sculpture either ancient or modern. It is during Francis' reign that the magnificent art collection of the French kings that can still be seen in the Louvre was truly begun.
Francis was also renowned as a man of letters. When Francis comes up in a conversation among characters in Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, it is as the great hope to bring culture to the war-obsessed French nation. Not only did Francis support a number of major writers of the period, he was a poet himself, if not one of immense quality. Francis worked hard at improving the royal library. He appointed the great French humanist Guillaume Budé as chief librarian, and began to expand the collection. Francis employed agents in Italy looking for rare books and manuscripts, just as he had looking for art works. During his reign, the size of the library increased greatly. Not only did Francis expand the library, there is also, according to Knecht, evidence that he read the books he bought for it, a much rarer feat in the royal annals. Francis set an important precedent by opening his library to scholars from around the world in order to facilitate the diffusion of knowledge.
In 1537, Francis signed the Ordonnance de Montpellier, decreeing that his library be given a copy of every book to be sold in France.