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1663 - 1793

 HISTORY OF THE ACADÉMIE
by Jean Leclant, Secrétaire perpétuel de l’Académie

 The original Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres

Founded by Colbert on February 3, 1663, the Académie royale des Inscriptions et Médailles (its name was permanently changed to the Académie royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres by royal decision on January 4, 1716), was initially really nothing more than an informal work group that was under the Prince’s exclusive control. The abbé d’Olivet, author of the Histoire de l’Académie françoise, wrote at that time that the “petite Académie” (so called because its four members also held chairs in the Académie Française) was a type of committee of specialists that included “scholars who were the most versed in the knowledge of history and antiquity.” Initially, the Académie royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres was in charge of coming up with Latin mottoes and inscriptions for the various monuments and medals that commemorated the noble deeds of the monarch as well as working toward increasing the prestige of the French monarchy in general. In order to achieve this very political goal, it drew upon classical erudition in its search for symbolic ways to glorify the Prince. For example, it would propose iconography for decorative motifs on the palaces, or it would come up with mythological themes for ballets or other court festivities. These activities were especially important to Louis XIV during the first part of his reign, during which he fashioned himself as a new Alexander.
Soon, however (and probably due in part to the secret marriage to Mme de Maintenon), the character of the court changed and the role of the Académie changed with it. Thus, beginning in 1683, while Louvois was succeeding Colbert as superintendent of buildings, the criteria for recruitment began evolving imperceptibly. The custodian of the royal cabinet of Antiquities, the talented Latin and Greek scholar André Dacier and the great art connoisseur André Félibien were given chairs along with the king’s historiographers Racine and Boileau. From these great men came the impetus to transform the Académie into a veritable “temple to the muse Clio” in the 18th century. The rational foundations for a number of new disciplines (archaeology, numismatics, epigraphy, and even philology) were established at this time under the influence of these men.

In 1691 Pontchartrain, up to then in the position of secrétaire d’État à la Maison du roi, succeeded Louvois. Under the influence of his nephew, the abbé Bignon (an Oratorian preacher, librarian to the king, powerful organizer, and veritable éminence grise), the minister decided to promote the Académie royale des Inscriptions by according it a legal framework based upon the structure of the regulations set up for the Académie des Sciences two years earlier.
Thus, by the order of July 16, 1701, the Académie royale des Inscriptions was elevated to the status of a state institution, a fact that ensured its continuity. Its existence would be further confirmed (along with that of the Académie des Sciences) by a manifest letter signed by Louis XIV at Marly in February of 1713 and registered with the Parliament of Paris on May 3, 1713.
The Académie created tokens of attendance, medals representing on the reverse side a muse holding a laurel crown and surrounded by Horace’s famous quote, vetat mori, a reference to the “immortality” that the Académie offers to the reputation of its members. In fact, this was the very first mention of this “immortality” of name that is still a privilege of the members of the Institut de France who in French are known as the “immortals.” To allow for the Académie to broaden the field of its studies, the number of members was increased to forty: ten honoraires, ten pensionnaires, ten associés, and ten élèves. To these were added six non French associés in 1715. In order for the members to share information, the Académie held meetings in the ground floor of the Louvre beyond the pavillion de l’horloge.
The Académie created tokens of attendance, medals representing on the reverse side a muse holding a laurel crown and surrounded by Horace’s famous quote, vetat mori, a reference to the “immortality” that the Académie offers to the reputation of its members. In fact, this was the very first mention of this “immortality” of name that is still a privilege of the members of the Institut de France who in French are known as the “immortals.” To allow for the Académie to broaden the field of its studies, the number of members was increased to forty: ten honoraires, ten pensionnaires, ten associés, and ten élèves. To these were added six non French associés in 1715. In order for the members to share information, the Académie held meetings in the ground floor of the Louvre beyond the pavillion de l’horloge.
In 1716, the Académie took the final title of Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres and a decision was made to publish the texts or abstracts of presentations that took place during the meetings. This was the beginning of the famous Mémoire de l’Académie whose first volume appeared in 1717. This publication contains scholarly historical and archaeological essays, along with early studies of linguistics, prolegomena of epigraphy or numismatics, and anything relating to the humanities (and in particular Middle Eastern studies). Furthermore, starting in 1786, the Académie was responsible for the collection of the Notices et extraits des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque du roy which included important studies on the writings by Greek, Latin, medieval, and even Middle Eastern authors.

From the 18th century on, the history of the Académie was the history of French scholarship, and its members included France’s most illustrious figures. It would be also appropriate to say that the ample pensions the Académie provided helped finance the expansion of French historical scholarship in this period. A brief list of some of the great académiciens of this time includes Dom Mabillon, author of the seminal De re diplomatica (1681); Nicolas Fréret, known as the “Varron des Modernes”; Charles de Brosses, whose Histoire des dieux fétiches was a precursor to comparatism; Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anvile, the father of historical geography; and the comte de Caylus and dom Bernard de Montfaucon, the archaeologists. Académiciens who contributed to the study of the rich cultures of the Near and Far East include the abbé Barthélemy, who deciphered inscriptions from Phoenicia and Palmyra; the India specialist Anquetil-Duperron; and the illustrious Sylvestre de Sacy.
With such a roster of great intellects, the Académie royale des Inscriptions has held an eminent position in Europe which no one could ignore. Indeed, besides the visits of great personalities such as Peter the Great in 1712, the heir to the grand duke of Russia in 1782, and Prince Henry of Prussia in 1784; the Académie was also sought out by great thinkers inside and outside of France for its reputation as a center of great scholarship. Thus, Leibnitz consulted it when he needed to interpret certain Greek inscriptions and Voltaire privately acknowledged his great indebtedness to it. In fact, the philosophers of the Enlightenment were all greatly influenced by the Mémoires de l’Académie.
A ruling dated December 22, 1786, demonstrates the evolution the Académie underwent during the 18th century and the considerable prestige the Académie had on the eve of the Revolution. This ruling promoted the idea that historical research was no longer considered a symbolic tool in the service of the State, but as an end unto itself. The articles in this ruling show this unequivocally: “The principal and direct object of the Académie being history, it shall occupy itself with 1) the study of languages, particularly the languages of the Middle East, and Greek and Latin; 2) the study of all kinds of monuments, medals, inscriptions, etc. that concern ancient and medieval history […] 5) the study of the sciences, arts, and crafts of the ancients, comparing them to those of modern times…”


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– Allocution de bienvenue du Secrétaire perpétuel Michel ZINK.
– Allocution de S. M. NORODOM Sihamoni.
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– Communication de M. Azedine BESCHAOUCH, associé étranger de l’Académie, et de Mme Chau Sun Kérya : « 25 ans de travaux à Angkor, sous l’égide du Comité international de Coordination (CIC) ».

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