Who's Afraid of the Institut
de France?

photo: seine and institut
The Institut de France looks across the Pont des Arts
to the Louvre.

A Lot of Knowledge Is Not Dangerous

Paris:- Friday, 4. September 1998:- The Institut de France has been sitting on the left bank, opposite the Pont des Arts, for over 200 years and I am a bit afraid of it.

I do not know what it is, except that it looks like France's Central Bank. I like using the Seine's Pont des Arts as a shortcut from the right bank's métro line one to the left bank, and every time I do this, there is the Institut's great, intimidating dome and its closed, imposing facade.

If it just had a friendly automatic cash machine, I'm sure it would seem more welcoming. On the Quai de Conti, the Hôtel des Monnaies is right next door, so what better place to sell their product?

I am just kidding around here. Last week I read that the Institut de France is the home of the Académie Française. As a dismal failure of a French student, this actually gives me a legitimate reason to be a little afraid of it. I have managed to not learn French for 41 years now, including 22 years of living here.

At the entry I anticipate; "You what? Hey, buddy, you don't speak French well enough to come into the Institut de France, historical home of the guardians of the language, by the immortals of the Académie Française. Take a hike!"

The other thing I read last week, was that a government commission, the Conseil Supérieur de la Langue Française, proposed to streamline French in 1990, and the Académie Française agreed to the changes. In retrospect, it's a good thing this event escaped me.

Apparently some of the 'immortals' of the Académie Française had been caught napping, because news of the Gulf War was immediately dropped from front pages to be replaced by the nearly universal 'Defense of the Language' story.

France refused to give up its beloved circumflex accent - which is the little 'hat' in words like 'Hôtel.' The 'immortals' said they had been absent - or asleep - the day the 'reform' passed; and the proposed changes went into the trashcan.

The number-one event in France is Bernard Pivot's annual spelling contest, called simply 'La Dictée.' First run in 1986, 300,000 experts of French from around the world try to score zero errors with two or threephoto: facade institut paragraphs of extremely tricky text which oozes with errors. This test is on TV of course, so maybe another six or seven million viewers give it a shot too.

On first hearing, the test prose does not sound terribly difficult. But French is a language of 'exceptions,' like France is a whole country of them. Having a nimble mind is an asset in France. A good memory is handy too.

The Institut's facade - virtually unchanged in 200 years.

Much to my surprise, the Institut de France's gatekeeper does not turn me away in disgust. Instead he directs me to a tiny reception office and the pleasant lady there says I can visit the Mazarine Library anytime I want to. All I need is a suitable identity document.

This is, in itself, so overwhelmingly friendly that I am forced by emotions to leave in order to consider the very possibility of being allowed to enter this hallowed institute.

I also ask the lady in the reception if there are any bits of the Tour de Nesle in the neighborhood. She says there isn't, but I want to look anyway.

Just to the east of the Place de l'Institut on the Quai de Conti, there is a small place where a statute of Concorcet - 1743 to 1794 - overlooks the quai and some parked cars. In this place, there is a Ville de Paris historical marker, saying this is the location of the Tour de Nesle.

This started out as the Tour Hamelin, a little distance away at the western edge of the Institut de France, which was also where the western portion of the Philippe Auguste wall ended at the Seine's banks. The Seine was wider in those days, around 1210, and it came up to the base of the westernmost building of the Institut.

About 30 metres to the south of the Tour Hamelin there was a doorway in the wall, flanked by two towers. The left one of these, is approximately in the location of the staircase leading to the entry of the present Mazarine Library.

During the 13th century, Simon de Clermont, chief of the Nesle clan, took over part of the Clos de Laas and built a big hôtel, which extended all the way to the rue de Nevers - and in this way 'Hamelin' became 'Nesle.' Simon's third son, Amaury de Clermont-Nesle, sold the property to King Philippe le Bel in 1308 for 5,000 livres.

After Philippe died in 1314, his second son, Philippe V le Long, gave it to his wife, the Queen Jeanne de Bourgogne. She lived in the hôtel from the time she was widowed in 1322 until her death in 1329.

The crown bought the property and passed it on to Charles, King of Navarre, in 1357. The Duc de Berri got it in 1380 and he built it up a lot. He even built another residence on the other side of the moat, called the Séjour de Nesle. This was sacked in 1411 by some Parisian strongmen, and subdivided. Around 1530 it was known as the Ilot de la Butte, and it was on the location of the present Institut's most westerly building.

A part got detached and became the Petit-Nesle, and Benvenuto Cellini lived and worked in it around 1540 and Henri II started having money made here around 1549. The Grand-Nesle was sold by Henri II in 1552 for cash, which he urgently needed.

Louis de Gonzague bought it in 1572, and he took the name of Duc de Nevers. A councilor of Saint-Barthélemy and savior of Henri IV in 1592, he was raised to the position of superintendent of finance before dying in 1595. Before this, the Duc de Nevers had had the Grand-Nesle knocked down and replaced by a magnificent new hôtel.

Afterwards, the princesses of Gonzague-Nevers achieved a certain reputation, which was also attributed to the Tour de Nesle. For example, Marie-Louise de Gonzague cried in the same chamber - as her great-grandmother had done 64 years earlier over the Italian gentleman, Coconnas - after Richelieu cut off the head of her boyfriend, Cinq-Mars. It had been planned to be the other way around.

Heartbroken, she first married the Polish King Sigismond Ladislas, and then his brother, Jean-Casimir. Cardinal de Retz did not have a high opinion of her sister, Anne de Gonzague, either. In 1641, Marie-Louise de Gonzague sold the Hôtel de Nevers, for demolition and subdivision.

This is a bit of a drift eastward from the Tour de Nesle and the Institut, although I can say there were indeed interesting parties in the building overlooking the Pont Neuf in my time.

Where we should be is at the location of the Petit-Nesle and the Séjour de Nesle. The famous tower was 10 metres in diameter and 25 metres high. A second tower, slimmer and higher, with a spiral staircase, was attached to its south side. The Tour de Nesle was opposite the Tour du Coin, across the river.

The tower had three interior floors and the Seine's waters lapped at its base. The melodrama by Alexendre Dumas involving the tower is not a true story. However, Philippe le Bel's daughter did make a comment, which lead to dungeons for two sisters-in law out of three, and allphoto: institut, mazarin side sorts or horrible torture, beheadings, followed by hangings, for the three boyfriends who were not their husbands.

Philippe le Bel was followed by Louis the Headstrong, who had his wife snuffed out between two mattresses. He croaked in 1316, a year afterwards. Philippe V le Long died in 1322. The third brother, Charles IV le Bel died in 1328. All Capetians; no heirs.

The rear of the Institut, seen from the rue Mazarine.

Somehow the third sister-in-law - mentioned above - Jeanne de Bourgogne survived. Otherwise Philippe V would have had to return her dowry of Franche-Comté, but he died first. Jeanne lived in the tower until 1329 and it is possible she had some good times in it. One boyfriend, who accidently brained a future Pope, became head of the university; outliving Jeanne by 31 years.

The inventive stories about these people, the tower and this time, were written more than 150 years afterwards. Three hundred years later, in more stories - without naming names, boyfriends were said to have been tossed off the tower after use. In the 16th century, the confusion between Jeanne de Bourgogne and Jeanne de Navarre was resolved somewhat.

In 1661, Cardinal Jules Mazarin, who ruled about as long as Richelieu, managed to die rich. He willed the establishment of a college, an academy and a library, to be open to the public twice a week. The site of the Séjour de Nesle and the Petit-Nesle was finally selected. The tower was knocked down in 1663 and the moat was filled in.

Le Vau, who was working at the time on the Louvre across the river, joined Lambert and d'Orbay on the new multiple construction, which was completed in 1684.

However, when the university was approached to supply the personnel for the new college, academy and library, the new establishment's idea of courses was incompatible with the university's statutes. Molière's troupe in the rue Guénégand was too near, and they had to move. The 'grandes familles' refused to send their children; only 'poor' royals would send theirs.

The whole thing finally opened on October 1688, four years after the late Cardinal Mazarin had been installed with great pomp. After operating for a few years during the Revolution as the Collège de l'Unité, the Collège des Quartre-Nations - its original name - was closed in March of 1793.

A 'liberty' tree was planted in front and it was converted into a prison for 650 inmates. The space beneath the coupole was used as a sugar depot. Then one of the three central schools was installed and in 1801, the Palace of Arts.

In 1805, it was decreed that the five academies established by Louis XIV in the Louvre in 1673 - and suppressed in 1793 - should move into the Institut. Actually, the Institut itself had been created in 1795, but it was located in the Salle de Criatides in the Louvre.

With only a few changes, the present exterior of the Institut is pretty much as Le Vau saw it. The massive sculpted groups are gone as are the big pots, and the two bronze lions went to Boulogne- Billancourt in 1950. The inscription on the front remains the same: 'JUL. MAZARINE S.R.E. CARD. BASILICAM. GYMNAS. E.C.A. MDCLXI.'

Today the Institut de France is the home of five academies, including the Académie Française. The other four are the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, the Académie des Sciences, the Académie des Beaux-Arts and the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques.

The Académie Française was established by Louis XIII at parliament in Paris in July 1637, with Cardinal Richelieu appointed as its 'chief and protector.' This job now belongs to the President of the République, Jacques Chirac.

The main job of the Académie Française is to define the rules of the French language, to maintain its purity and eloquence, and to make sure it is adequate for dealing with the arts and sciences.

With this in mind, the Académie produced its first dictionary in 1694. The first volume - 'A' to 'Enzyme' - of the ninth edition was published in 1992. Although the French word 'logiciel' - for 'software' - predates 1992, I am not quite sure the Académie has reached 'L' yet.

In addition to a 'perpetual secretary,' the Académie Française has exactly 40 'lifetime' members, who are referred to as 'immortals.' The members are composed of the most eminent in the land.

When one dies, candidates must campaign for the empty post, and if chosen, must present a 55-minute eulogy to the deceased member being replaced - in flawless French. This is published in itsphoto: musee jacquemart andre entirety in the following day's Le Monde, and if mistakes are found there will be a big row.

In the normal course of events, members of the Académie meet once a week to consider the condition of the language; work that leads to the next edition of the dictionary.

The private mansion of Edouard André and his wife, Nélie Jacquemart, is now an exceptional museum - now owned by the Institut de France. It is open daily, all year.

Meanwhile, all ordinary French speakers are perfectly free to play with the language and invent new expressions. These may catch on and become current, without much recognition given to the original author if they are oral. If the new expression is written first, then minor fame may arrive - after long and due deliberation by the Académie Française.

Basically, the Institut de France is a depository, representing all fields of thought and creation in France. It accepts donations like a foundation, and it annually awards hundreds of prizes for significant achievements.

In other words, the building on the left bank with the gilded dome at the south end of the Pont des Arts, across the Seine from the Louvre, is a 'think tank.'

Small wonder then, that it doesn't have an automatic cash machine. Thinking doesn't cost anything.

I take the shortcut through the western side of the building to the rue de Seine and have a look at the back of the dome from the rue Mazarine. In the first bar I come to in the rue de Seine, I wonder if the other clients include any 'immortals.'

If so, the tiny bar has some nice open-face ham and cheese toasties for them. The café is not bad either. I must remember this if I ever spend a session in the Institut's Mazarine Library.

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