Henri III's favorite acting troup
1500s,  Renaissance

Henri III and the case of the missing acting troupe

Few people loved a party as much as Henri II of France. Of course, there wasn’t as much money to pay for lavish celebrations as there was during Francis I’s time. Still, Henri de Valois inherited his larger-than-life grandfather’s love for art and pageantry.

After taking the throne in 1574, Henri took charge of the entertainment aspect of court functions, sometimes taking the role away from his mother, Catherine de Medici. Like his mother, the new king preferred comedy, finding the tragedies by leading playwrights of the day a dull experience. Historians have pointed out that Henri III likely suffered from chronic digestive issues and clinical depression, so it’s no surprise that he preferred to watch lighter-themed productions to take his mind off of the problems of governing an unruly kingdom.

By far, Henri’s most beloved troupe of players was an Italian company called I Gelosi. During his brief tour of Italy in 1572 after the Poles elected him their king, Henri lingered in Venice, where he first met the actors. Henri had a particular interest in an actress, who most historians believe was known by her stage name of “Vittoria.” There’s no evidence I could find that Henri had a romantic attraction to her. He seems to have been a genuine fan of her work. Although the group was scheduled to leave Venice for an engagement in Mantua, they stayed to meet Henri, and it would be one of the fondest memories he had of visiting his mother’s homeland.

Henri III's favorite acting troup
Henri III’s favorite acting troupe

In 1576, Henri wrote to his ambassador in Venice, asking for help in getting the troupe to appear at the French court. After a flurry of negotiations, the Italians were scheduled to head to Blois to perform for Henri and the court. Just like any other performer on tour, they had packed their schedule and were able to find an open date after performing at the Imperial court.

Disaster struck on their way to France. The Huguenots kidnapped the actors, and demanded a ransom from Henri for their safe passage to Blois. Now, this may sound like a practical joke, but during this period, kidnapping a noble or an important personage was a profitable way to extort money from the rich and powerful. Henri managed to pay up, and when the troupe finally made it to Blois, they were met with a warm welcome.

As a relieved (and slightly poorer) Henri looked on, the troupe performed a comedy for the court. One of the actresses, Isabella Andreini, would later settle in France and died in 1604 in Lyon.

From The French Renaissance Court, by Robert J. Knecht