The history of the Academy

The creation of the French Academy in Rome was part of the policy of great work of King Louis XlV at the end of the 17th century. Those works transformed the Louvre, the Tuileries, and Versailles. The Academy was created in 1666 under the leadership of Colbert, Le Brun and Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It welcomed artists who won the First Prize of Rome and several protégés of powerful lords. Young artists pensioned by the king got broadened training, being in touch with Rome and Italy. At the time pensioners followed a regime of strict discipline and devoted their stay to the realisation of copies of Antique or Renaissance art. In 1720 architects joined the sculptors and painters as pensioners.

Before being transferred to the Villa Medici the Academy headed in different buildings. It started in the modest house near Sant’Onofrio on the side of the Janiculum, before moving to the Caffarelli palace in 1683 and to the Capranica palace in 1684. Then the Academy was moved to the Mancini palace in 1725. At the time the Academy welcomed the painters Boucher, Subleyras, Fragonard, David as well as sculptors like Houdon.

During the Revolution the function of director was abolished. The Mancini palace had been plundered and devastated by Roman counter-revolutionaries in February 1793. Some pensioners fled to Naples or Florence. After those events the Academy was removed. It was reinstated in 1795 by the Directory, but it needed a new place to be welcomed. On May 18, 1803 France and the Court of Etrury decided to trade the Mancini palace for the Villa Medici.

While moving in, the Academy also changed status. Now linked to the Institut de France, the entrance examination, “Prix de Rome” (Prize of Rome) was organised by the Academy of Fine Arts. Musicians entered the French Academy in Rome through the composition prize created in 1803. Engravers joined the Academy when the biennale engraving prize was created in 1804, or through the quadrennial medal and fine rock engraving prize, starting in 1807. Those two disciplines had been added to celebrate Napoleonic victories.  From 1835 to 1841, Ingres directed the villa. Directors traditionally were former pensioners of the Villa, although there were some exceptions, like Carolus-Duran for instance. Throughout the 19th century the Academy received famous pensioners such as Victor Balthard, the architect of the Halles of Paris, Charles Garnier who built the Parisian opera, and composers like Berlioz, Bizet, Gounod or Debussy. The Academy also welcomed sculptors like Carpeaux or David d’Angers.

Women entered the Academy at the beginning of the 20th century, with Lili Boulanger, Great prize of Rome in music composition in 1913, but also Odette Pauvert, Great Prize of Rome 1925 in painting. During World War II the Villa was requisitioned by Mussolini. The Academy was then been transferred to Nice and later Fontainebleau. In 1961 André Malraux appointed the painter Balthus to the direction of the Villa. Both wanted to deeply reform it. Balthus started a great renovation of the building and organised manifestations to open the Villa to the Romans. He also created new exhibition rooms. This new approach was enacted by a decree in 1971. The Academy was then separated from the Fine Arts Academy’s tutorship and the principles of the examination were deeply modified.

The duration of the scholarship was reduced from four to two years maximum, while writers, moviemakers, photographers, set designers as well as art restorers and art historians broadened the circle of pensioners. Their number grew from 12 to 25. The Villa Medici takes parts in cultural and artist exchanges. The Villa offers exhibitions, concerts, symposia and seminars on relevant topics on arts, letters and their history. It was framed by the 1971 decree to be a perfect place for Franco Italian meetings. The Villa plays a decisive role in Roman and European culture. Those goals were the core of policies led by Jean Leymarie (1977-1984), Jean-Marie Drot (1985-1994), Jean-Pierre Angremy (1994-1997), Bruno Racine (1997-2002) as well as Frédéric Mitterrand (2008-2009), Eric De Chassey (2009- 2015) and recently Muriel Mayette-Holtz.