Claude Catherine de Clermont
1500s,  Renaissance

Italian scapegoating at the French court

It’s never easy being an immigrant, and the Sixteenth- Century was no exception. In France, the bulk of the immigrant hatred was directed towards the Italians who settled at court after the Italian campaigns started by Charles VIII. Francis added Italians to his court, importing them for their artistic skills.

Francis I at the Death of Leonardo da Vinci

Any time there’s an influx of new favorites, the existing courtiers will start to feel their fortunes will be threatened, and when the invaders are foreigners, the resentment mounts. Many critics of the time, especially during Henri III’s reign (when criticism spread like a virus) blamed the Italians for the changes Henri instituted at his court. His mother was an Italian, after all, and she’d shaped the court during his older brothers’ reigns, so she was an easy target for the critics.

Adding to their anxiety, the non-nobles including the merchant bankers from Italy started to move from Lyon, where most of the industry in France was located, to Paris in response to Henri’s continued presence there. Henri initiated the practice of staying in one place at a time, choosing to remain in Paris for longer stretches. This was due in part to the fact that his court was constantly short on money. Still, opportunity and money follow power, and the merchants started congregating in Paris, irritating the longstanding French courtiers. The goods that were considered to be “luxury,” including sculptures, paintings, gardening and fountain design were the exclusive province of Italian artists, and the closer to the king the artisans were, the easier it was to receive commissions. No Frenchman considered his education to be complete without studying in Italy, and they carried a preference for Italian arts and crafts back to France when they returned. Henri spoke fluent Italian, “Tuscan,” and 16$ of his books were written in Italian.

Of course, the influx of Italians within the court caused the rich and powerful the most anxiety. The most successful of them was Louis Gonzaga, the Duc of Nevers, who was a senior advisor to Henri III during his entire 15 year reign. Louis made his fortune by marrying a rich Bourbon cousin of Henry IV. During his father, Henry II’s reign, there were 77 Italians who received pensions at French court. Under Henri III, that number ballooned to 243. The Italians were easy targets for resentment and criticism.

When critics slammed the court’s vices, they considered them to be imported from Italy, not homegrown. Most nobles had read Machiavelli’s works, and considered them to be embodied in the Queen Mother and all of the Italians who followed her into France. They conveniently ignored the fact that the man at court who was often at the center of controversy was a Frenchman, Henri’s favorite, the Duc de Epernon. Courtiers read translations of Machiavelli’s works, and their enemies often blamed the principles from the book for dividing France into factions.

Most alarming was the French printer-publisher Henri Etienne who in 1578 published Two Dialogues of the New Language of French-Italian, a pamphlet that accused the entire court of creating a hybrid language mixing the two languages. This type of code was a way for the court to insulate itself and distance itself from the life of the rest of France. He called it a culture of “accommodation” that subverted French ideals and words in favor of those colored by Italians.

Italian immigrants came to France in waves, starting with Charles VIII. Henri III was hardly the first to give them a space at French court, and he certainly wouldn’t be the last. In the future, I’ll look at the reception Italians received when they landed in France following Marie de Medici’s marriage to Henry IV.

Until then, catch up with some of the other families of France, including the Condes with a FREE book.