“The Collège de France Opens Its Doors”: Virtual Exhibition (Episode 1)
Translated by Liz Carey Libbrecht.
Over several weeks, we will be offering you the opportunity to discover the history of Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, from ancient times up until the twentieth century, from the angle of the Collège de France. This exhibition, organized by the Collège’s Archives Department and its Bibliothèque Patrimoniale [heritage library], was presented to visitors during European Heritage Days 2019.
In 1530, King François I, at the initiative of Guillaume Budé and Marguerite de Navarre, founded the Collège Royal, a new scholarly institution where Greek, Hebrew, and mathematics, disciplines excluded from the Sorbonne, would be taught. He gave it the motto “Docet omnia” (“it teaches everything”).
The construction of the Collège’s buildings was spread over several centuries, at the intersection of the cardo-decumanus of the ancient city of Lutetia, at the base of Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. Until 1610, the Collège did not have its own facilities, and its professors, called “lecteurs royaux” (“royal readers”), taught at different “collèges” in Paris’ Latin quarter.
Today the Collège, as a public higher education institution dedicated to fundamental research and the dissemination of knowledge, is administered by its professors, whose numbers range between fifty and sixty. The institution is headed by the Administrator, who is elected by his peers and is then officially appointed by Presidential decree. As both the administrative and scientific council of the institution, the faculty of the Collège de France meet three times per year. The only criterion governing their decision to nominate new professors, whether French citizens or foreigners, is the scale and originality of candidates’ work, as well as the overall evolution of their research. To ensure constant adaptation to changes in disciplines and knowledge, none of the Collège’s Chairs are permanent.
The teachings of the professors, each of whom holds a Chair, revolve around research “in the making” rather than around prescribed content, in all fields of knowledge, from mathematics and natural science, to social science and the humanities. The Collège de France also has the goal of promoting the emergence of new disciplines and a multidisciplinary approach to fundamental research. More than four hundred and fifty researchers work there, out of a community totalling approximately one thousand people, in collaboration with the CNRS [French National Centre for Scientific Research], INSERM [French National Institute of Health and Medical Research], INRIA [French National Institute for Computer Science and Applied Mathematics], and other large academic institutions. The Collège de France is also an associate member of PSL University.
The Collège is supported by two foundations, the Fondation Hugot and the Fondation du Collège de France.
The Collège de France does not issue degrees; the education it offers is free and open to all, with no registration conditions, and has been recorded and available online since 2007. The Collège’s publications department publishes, in digital and physical formats, professors’ inaugural lectures, the institution’s directory (a summary of courses and research), as well as the minutes of seminars or lectures. Its eleven libraries and archives department contribute to creating and disseminating the knowledge produced at the Collège, and present its vast heritage at on-site or on-line exhibitions.
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PANORAMIC VIEW OF THE FOYER. (© COLLEGE DE FRANCE, MARCO CUCCHI)
In Gallo-Roman times
In the nineteenth century, at the beginning of the twentieth century, and once again between 1929 and 1935, during large-scale construction work, the ground beneath the Collège de France was examined and archaeological excavations were carried out. The remains of a large number of buildings and the eastern side of the current Cour d’Honneur [courtyard of honour] were thus discovered. This location used to contain thermal baths, as evidenced by the hypocaust (underground oven used to heat rooms) systems, rotundas (thermal rooms), and the specific layout of the spaces. They were called the “Thermes du Collège” [Collège thermal baths] or the “Thermes de l’Est” [eastern thermal baths].
In 1991, the decision to create underground lecture halls led to excavation work under courtyards that had not been modified at all until then. As a result, the Chalgrin, Letarouilly, and Budé courtyards were explored in 1994. The excavations confirmed the presence of thermal baths, a palaestra (a large courtyard for exercise), porticos, and an entrance building, all of which were built during the second century C.E. Under the palaestra, the remains of humble accommodations were found, dating back to 30 B.C.E. These structures were subsequently sacrificed when sand and gravel were extracted to create roads, leaving huge pits that were later filled in, during the first century C.E. Carpentry workshops and livestock stables (for pigs and horses), as well as other buildings, were erected on top of them. As the urbanization of the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève began, a large wooden building was added, followed by the thermal baths.
In the corner of the palaestra, a metal workshop was found containing an underground oven, pits, conduits, and a large amount of metal scrap. This temporary facility – an exceptional find according to archaeologists – is evidence of the modernization of the thermal baths, which most likely modified their heating and bathing system.
The thermal baths were abandoned and disassembled at the end of the third century. A butcher set up his business at their location, probably along with other artisans. This occupation lasted throughout the High Middle Ages, as indicated by layers of “dark earth”: evidence of habitation in the form of perishable materials, courtyards, and small artisan objects.
“An impressive Roman building stood at the site”: the entrails of the Collège de France
The preparatory work for modern construction afforded the opportunity to carry out excavations beneath the Collège’s buildings. Three main campaigns took place: 1894-1904, 1929-1938, and 1993-1994. The excavations in the 1930s revealed a large thermal bath complex from the first century called the “Thermes de l’Est” [eastern thermal baths]. In particular, discoveries included a hypocaust (underground heating system) and a palaestra (room for practising physical exercise). It was one of the oldest buildings of this type in ancient Lutaetia, dating back to bfore the Thermes de Cluny [Cluny thermal baths].
Everyday life in the Gallo-Roman district
In addition to monumental ruins, the archaeologists’ work revealed numerous objects that bear witness to lifestyle in Antiquity. In addition to remains from the thermal baths (such as segments of plumbing and the water drainage system) there is a multitude of ceramic and metal artefacts, including lamps, fibula (brooches), and ring keys (generally used to open/close chests). All of these attest to the customs of the site’s occupants.
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