Homer for the Court of Francois I

Article excerpt


Hugues Salel (1503-53), courtier, cleric, and poet, wrote averse translation of the first ten books of the Iliad that appeared in Paris in 1545 as a carefully produced small folio volume with eleven fine new woodcut illustrations. (1) The publisher, Vincent Sertenas, was known for his vernacular editions: often illustrated, and often, like this one, intended for the luxury market. The king himself declares in the privilege, printed at the start of the volume, that he has already heard the first nine books with satisfaction and pleasure. (2) Francois I (1494-1547) is not expressing naive and private pleasure; his statement is surely an implicit exhortation to other readers to follow him in experiencing this delight, explicitly accompanied by instruction. In the volume examined here, the reception of Homer's poem is shaped not only by the translation--accurate on the whole, but marked by subtle and systematic changes--but also by the book's layout, its marginal notations, and its images. In what follows, each of these elements will be examined for what they can tell us about the sixteenth-century reception of this volume. How did the translator and illustrators prepare the work for its intended readers (the authorial audience), whom they understood to be nobles and courtiers who were, like the king, men of action rather than scholars? How were they expected to respond to the Iliad, a poem with enormous importance and prestige, and at the same time deeply rooted in an alien culture? Homer's epic, now made French for the king, should be understood to express the imaginaire of French nobles toward the end of the reign of Francois I. (3) If Salel is the central figure in this undertaking, the publisher and his agents will be seen to have joined their voices to his, giving the project its final shape in the printed volume where contemporary readers encountered Homer. (4)


Salel undertook the translation at a time when the vernacular's readiness for such a task was still in question, and when Greek was politically loaded, exotic, enticing, and, in the eyes of some, dangerous. (5) All these attitudes merit comment, as they impinge on the reception of the "prince of Greek poets." (6) Greek was increasingly brought into the royal circle by men like the lecteur du roy, Pierre Du Chastel (ca. 1500-52), who was an avid collector of Greek books and manuscripts for the royal library. When Du Chastel came to his position in 1537, the royal collection contained forty Greek manuscripts; by 1544 it had grown nearly sevenfold to 270 items. (7) This enormous expansion reflects Du Chastel's personal enthusiasm, but it would not have continued had it not found the support of the king and court. Numerous French translations of Greek works were published to respond to this interest. The royal circle's interest in things Greek was further reflected in, and encouraged by, the use of Homeric subjects in the decoration of Fontainebleau, undertaken contemporaneously with Salel's translation. (8)

In the 1530s the appointment of official lecteurs royaux in Greek as part of the founding operation of the future College de France helped to legitimize Greek studies by placing them under the direct protection of the crown. At about the same time, elite schoolboys in Paris, including future Pleiade poets, started learning Greek as a normal part of the curriculum. (9) The spread of Greek learning helped reduce the suspicion with which it was viewed by churchmen and the degree to which it was perceived as a threat to the inherited Latinity of the Vulgate and Church traditions. From a political point of view, Greek had the inestimable advantage of not being Latin--the language of the papacy, enemy of Gallican liberties, and, on occasion, enemy of the Most Christian King. In contrast, contemporary Greece, an Ottoman possession, was no cultural threat; better still, the Turks were Francois I's sometime allies. …