Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Diane de Poitiers, a case of mammary narcissism

Painting believed to be of Diane de Poitiers
A Lady in Her Bath, by Francois Clouet, 1571. National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The woman in partial undress shown by Francois Clouet as A Lady in Her Bath is believed to be the famous mistress of the French King Henry II, Diane de Poitiers.1 Born in 1499 in the château of St. Vallier on the river Rhone, Diane descended from a family connected with royalty on both her father and her mother’s side. Her father had a passion for hunting and by age six Diane had learned how to manage a horse. She had a formal education, learning Latin and the classics, and even becoming knowledgeable in medicine by reading the works of Ambroise Paré and Andreas Vesalius.

In 1990 the late Dr. Robert L Schmitz of Chicago reviewed several aspects of her life and appears to have been the first to coin the term mammary narcissism.1 He describes Diane as obsessed with physical fitness, proud of her body and particularly her breasts, exercising regularly, riding horseback and hunting, bathing as often as three times a day in cold water and also at night if there was moonlight.1 At all times she protected her face from the sun and wind by wearing a mask. She identified with Diana the huntress from mythology and was encouraged by her vanity to pose repeatedly in various degrees of undress. Dr. Schmitz has identified at least eighteen works of art, paintings, sketches, or medallions for which Diane was the model, including possibly the one at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.1

As a young woman Diane was married to a man said to have been old, ugly, and hunchbacked, a grandson of King Charles VII of France. Widowed in 1521 she did not remarry but returned to court as one of the matrons of honor of King Francis I. She had three daughters. It has been said that her letters reveal economic and political talent, kindness, and love of harmony and tranquility. But somewhere around 1538 she became the mistress of the second son of Francis I, Henry, who as a child had spent over four years in captivity in Spain as a hostage in exchange for his father. He became a shy and taciturn youth, sheepish and gloomy, a constant irritation to his father. Marriages in that era were political, arranged in this case by Pope Clement VII and Francis I, and resulting in Henry being married to Catherine de Medici when both were fourteen years old. In 1533 the wedding was celebrated with great pomp in Marseille and then in Paris, and although young Catherine adored her husband, the feelings were not reciprocated and a few years later Henry took Diane as his mistress.2,3

Henry was about nineteen years old and Diane almost forty, and their relationship endured for some twenty-five years.2 In 1547 on the death of his elder brother, Henry II became King of France. He continued his relationship with Diane, relegating Catherine to a secondary role and spending all his time with his mistress, whom he created Duchess of Valentinois and submitted practically all things to her rule.2,3 She occupied the chief place at Henry’s coronation and subsequent functions, disposed of all offices, and had splendid residences in her chateaux of Anet and particularly Chenonceaux, leaving Catherine in the gloomy castle of Chaumont. Although Henry and Diane lived like husband and wife, Diane wanted Catherine to bear children in order to preserve the dynasty, and the story has it that Catherine acquired her sex education by watching the couple through the keyhole. This was not unsuccessful in that Catherine eventually produced ten children. She was a quiet, dutiful wife who endured uncomplainingly the indignity of Henry’s infidelity.2,3

The situation changed in 1559 when King Henry had a jousting accident. A lance penetrated his orbit and punctured his brain, causing him to die after eleven days despite care by Ambroise Paré and Andreas Vesalius, the two leading surgeons of the time.4 Catherine became the regent of her young son. She forbade Diane to appear at court, confiscated her jewels, and took over the castle of Chenonceaux.4 Diane spent her remaining years in her château at Anet, where she lived in comfortable obscurity as a virtual exile. In 1565 she suffered a fall from a horse for which Ambroise Paré treated her but from which she never fully recovered and died at age sixty-six in 1566.

Diane was buried in a funeral chapel near her castle at Anet. During the French Revolution, her tomb was opened and the mummified remains thrown in a mass grave. In 2008 several skeletons were excavated in the cemetery of Anet near a monument to Diane. Diane’s remains were identified by some physical particularities, the evidence of fractures of the tibia and fibula sustained during her riding accident, and also by comparing her mandible with that of her last portrait by Francois Clouet. Specimens of her hair were available from the excavated remains and also from hair that had been preserved in the castle. Gold concentrations 500 times the reference values were found, and her hair shafts were thin, a possible symptom of gold toxicity.5 Diane was known to have undergone a long course of gold treatment during life, hoping it was an elixir of youth. Such gold was popular at the time as aurum potabile, and she had apparently drunk during her life a preparation of gold believed to preserve youth, but whether this contributed to her death is not known.



  1. Schmitz RL. Diane the Poitiers: a Royal Model with Mammary Narcissism. Proc Inst. Med. Chgo 1990; 43:17.
  2. Young GF. The Medici. Modern library, New York, 1910.
  3. Sheila ffolliott. Casting a Rival into the Shade: Catherine de’ Medici and Diane de Poitiers. Art Journal 1989, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 138-143
  4. Anonymous. Henry II of France dies of tournament wounds. History Today, London, Jul 2009, Vol. 59, Iss. 7.
  5. Charlier P, Poupon J, Huynh-Charlier, et al. A gold elixir of youth in the 16th century French court.



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief



Spring 2021  |  Sections  |  History Essays

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