Francis I had, as it was custom for aristocrats at the time an emblem, that he picked. An emblem was a personal symbol that was different from their family heraldy that kings and other grand persons picked. Those who read my blog before might remember the sun of King Louis XIV and that the sun was depicted everywhere in Versailles. Francis I had the same thing but with his emblem the salamander. Yep that’s right: a salamander. A crowned salamander.
So why a crowned salamander?
In medieval iconography it represented the man who never lost the peace of his soul (went through the fires of passion) and who was confident in God despite all troubles. So it corresponded to chastity, virginity, loyalty. It was also identified with Christ who would baptize the world with fire flames. The salamander was a powerful symbol because it was associated with both fire and poison and many people were afraid of it. At the time it was believed that salamanders could use any type of fire without harm. Even brilliant minds like Leonardo da Vinci believed this because he wrote about the salamander: “This has no digestive organs, and gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin. The salamander, which renews its scaly skin in the fire,—for virtue.
This seems of course really odd to us, but it wasn’t really Leonardo’s fault that he came to this odd conclusion about salamanders. In medieval times some really rich people had bought exotic mantles that were said to be made of salamander wool and had the wonderful ability that it could withstand fire perfectly. Many people testified that this wonderful salamander hair didn’t burn or got damaged by fire but it sounds to be good to be true and it was. The “salamander hair” wasn’t salamander hair at all it wasn’t even hair! It was asbestos! Yup the same nasty stuff gave millions of people cancer and rich people paid really much for the privilege to wear it close to their skin. But of course people didn’t know that at the time. And people just assumed that the information they got that it was woven salamander hair or that it was silk-like material that was woven from the cocoons that salamanders supposedly made according to people in the 12th century. No wonder that people reached the conclusion that the animals must be fireproof as well if their hair was.
Marco Polo almost got it right after he had witnessed people in China digging up “salamander” which was in fact asbestos but he was a bit unlucky in his thinking. He concluded that “the real truth is that the Salamander is no beast, as they allege in our part of the world, but is a substance found in the earth.” He should have concluded that the fibers known as salamander hair simply weren’t coming from any type of animal and had very little to do with the animal called salamander. But of course this doesn’t mean that salamanders don’t exist. Marco Polo was apparently a much better explorer than a biologist :).
Another sensible explanation is that salamanders often hibernate under rotting logs. So if people took that wood and carried it inside their house they could be surprised by a salamander that appeared to have come out of the fire. Thus believed to be born in fire.
Emblems were often used to literally put one’s mark on things. The several palaces that Francis I build or improved were all bedazzled with salamanders. There are crowned ones:
You see the salamanders on and over doors:
Francis I salamander with golden flames and Fleur-de-Lis guarding a door at Chateau de Blois.
The salamanders are on fireplaces:
And on wood panels sometimes combined with Francis I initial F:
One usage of emblems in Francis I’s time was to use it as a way to literally put your mark on things like chairs and doors and closets:
The Salamander also appeared in the architecture of Francis I castles.
We may never know for sure why Francis I picked the salamander as his symbol. The salamander was associated with bravery but also with chastity, fire, poison and danger. Probably a good symbol for a king who wants the nobility to know that he is ready for them should they turn against him. Especially if you want to suggest that you’re almost as indestructible like a salamander.
There are golden Salamanders in Paris too at the Alexander III bridge and in the Alexander III pond:
An emblem could also be matched with the owners motto.
I hope you all enjoyed the story of Francis I and his salamander emblem!
Bonsoir, mon amis! Hilde