No one can visit Paris without gazing at the Institut de France at least once. This majestic building sits proudly on the left bank of the Seine directly across from the south wing of the Louvre’s Cour Carée. In fact, the famous Pont des Arts bridge directly links the front portals of each building. So if you come to the city to see the Louvre, the Seine or maybe just the Pont des Arts, you will most likely also see the Institut de France.
So how did this building get to be constructed at this prestigious location? It was all Cardinal Mazarin’s doings. Louis XIV lived at the Louvre before re-locating to Versailles in 1682. Across the river from the Louvre was the Tour de Nesle, built in the 13th century as part of the city’s fortification and now crumbling. Mazarin, protege of Cardinal Richelieu, became France’s Prime Minister in 1643 when Louis IV ascended to the throne at the age of five. Mazarin wanted to demolish the tower and build a college for 60 students of the four provinces that had been acquired by France during his ministry: Alsace, Roussillon, Flanders-Artois, and the region of Pinerolo. The college would be called The College of the Four Nations but it was sometimes referred to as the College Mazarin. After Mazarin’s death in 1661, the king’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, hired Louis Le Vau, the king’s chief architect from 1654 to his death in 1670, to build the college. Le Vau began his design of the college in 1662 and the tower and adjacent building, a medieval mansion, were demolished in 1665.
Le Vau was a busy man in the decade preceding his death. In 1660 he was appointed the overseer of all construction at the Louvre across the river. From 1661 to 1663 he built a new south wing of the Cour Carée du Louvre only to see a new facade designed by Claude Perrault go up in front of his building five years later. Le Vau also collaborated with Perrault on the design of the celebrated east wing of the Louvre’s Cour Carée, often called the masterpiece of 17th Century French architecture. Le Vau is also partially responsible for the design of Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles, his chief contribution being the “envelope” that surrounds Louis XIII’s old hunting lodge. Earlier in his career Le Vau worked with Andre Le Notre and Charles Le Brun in the redesign of the famous Vaux-le-Vicomte. He also worked on many other famous buildings in Paris including the church of Saint-Sulpice and several large residential buildings on Ile Saint-Louis including the Hotel Lambert.
For the College of the Four Nations Le Vau discarded the traditional French slate roof for the Italianate nearly flat roof with balustrades for most of his semi-circular facade. But he went back to the traditional French style of Mansard roofs at both ends of the building in order to match the Louvre pavilions across the river, one of which he designed to match the Pavillon de Roi which was built a hundred years earlier in the Renaissance style of that time. The College was built mostly in the baroque tradition and Le Vau’s design resembles the works of two famous Italian architects, Pietro da Cortona (a fresco painter who turned to architecture late in his career) and Francesco Borromini. Both of these architects worked for Bernini in building the Barberini Palace in Rome and later became rivals of their ex-employer. Cortona designed the church of Santa Maria della Pace, noted for its curving portico. Borromini designed both San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane which is squeezed into a corner where two roads intersect on Rome’s Quirinal Hill and the Oratory of Saint Phillip Neri (Oratorio dei Filippini), on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, also in Rome. The Oratory features a curved facade made with bricks. Borromini also designed the Church of Saint Agnes in Agony in Rome’s Piazza Navona, not far from the Oratory. Le Vau’s dome resembles that of Saint Agnes.
Francois d’Orbey completed the project after Le Vau died and the college opened in 1688. Its most esteemed graduate during its 102-year history was probably the artist Jacques-Louis David. The college was abolished during the revolution and Napoleon in 1805 transferred the five Academies that make up the Institute of France (French Academy, Academy of Humanities, Academy of Sciences, Academy of Fine Arts and Academy of Moral and Political Sciences) from the Louvre to the college and changed the name of the building to Institut de France. These academies now have their sessions in the circular room under the dome that was originally designed by Le Vau to be the college chapel.
The Pont des Arts was built between 1802 and 1804 to link the Louvre to the Institute. It was rebuilt between 1981 and 1984 to look just like the original. This is one of three bridges in Paris whose parapets are covered with engraved padlocks. Lovers engrave their names on the locks and after attaching the locks to the side panels on the bridge throw the keys in the Seine. One of the parapets on The Pont des Arts collapsed a month after our stay this year with the extra weight from all of the love-locks.
Mazarin willed 2 million livres for the building of the College of the Four Nations with a library to store his extensive book collection. The library, called Bibliotheque Mazarine, is open to the public but the rest of the Institute is not.
We took different routes to get to the Seine from Blvd St Germain. Sometimes we would walk up Rue Bonaparte and sometimes we would try Rue de la Seine. Once we walked up Rue Mazarine which leads directly to the Institut de France.