Tour of the Sorbonne

Main entry into the Sorbonne

Like our previous articles about the Sénat and Hôtel de Ville, during the special weekend for Journées Européennes du Patrimoine, we also went to the historic Sorbonne, which is not normally open to the public. A lovely couple we met on one of the Paris Walks told us about this special weekend or we never would have known. La Sorbonne was first a college started in the middle ages, part of the loose affiliation known as the University of Paris, which still adorns the entry, and now refers to the historic building in the Latin Quarter of Paris, which is used in part by four different universities:

  • Panthéon-Sorbonne University (Paris I), which also houses the observatory of the Sorbonne and the Sorbonne Law School.
  • Sorbonne Nouvelle University (Paris III)
  • Paris-Sorbonne University (Paris IV), which also houses the “School of Journalism (CELSA)” and the “Maison de la Recherche”
  • Paris Descartes University: Faculté des Sciences Humaines et Sociales – Sorbonne (Paris V)
paris_city_wall

Shown outline is the Phillip Augustus city wall. The portion inside the wall south of (below) the Seine River is the Latin Quarter.

I was hoping to find a simple explanation for origin of colleges and universities in the Latin Quarter – but no (more details here). The simplest starting point is that the church, represented by the Cathedral at Notre Dame, encouraged development of schools on the left bank. Students could be identified because the tops of their heads were shaven, and those with that identification were under the protection of the church, and not subject to the King’s laws or courts. Paris, as is shown in the diagram of the city wall of Phillip Augustus, which was completed in about 1215, included portions on the right bank and left bank with a core on Île de la Cité. The Latin quarter is in the south (bottom) part of the picture. The right bank (north part) was governed by the Provost (mayor of the merchants – he lived at Hôtel de Ville). The King lived on Île de la Cité and governed that space. On the left bank the students were only accountable to ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and the King had no authority there. Originally there were the palace school, the school of Notre Dame, and the Saint Geneviève Abbey, as well as numerous smaller schools. The school of Saint Victor later rose to rival the earlier schools, and the palace school faded in importance. One of its most famous professors (I must point out) was Hugh of Saint Victor. It seems, though the literature is not positive, that these three remaining schools formed the University of Paris in about 1208. The students were also organized by nations, a fraternity like arrangement where students of certain nationalities spoke a common language and complied with a certain set of rules.

The chapel at the Sorbonne was destroyed in the French Revolution

The chapel at the Sorbonne was destroyed in the French Revolution – painting at the Carnavalet Museum

The Collège de Sorbonne, was founded in 1257 by Robert de Sorbon. The Latin quarter had many scholar residents who taught students. The original colleges were started to house and feed the students rather than to provide classrooms and administration for the faculty. In later years the college was reformed to become the university it is today.

France’s principal minister under Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu, is represented today as an important figure in the life of the Sorbonne. In 1622, Richelieu was elected the proviseur or principal of the Sorbonne. He presided over the renovation of the college’s buildings, and over the construction of its famous chapel, where he is now entombed. There is more about his internment at the Chapel of the Sorbonne (from the Wikipedia article):

Richelieu died on 4 December 1642, aged 57. His body was embalmed, and interred at the church of the Sorbonne. (On hearing of Richelieu’s death, Pope Urban is said to have remarked, “If there is a God, Richelieu will have much to answer for. If there is not, he lived a successful life.”) During the French Revolution, the corpse was removed from its tomb, and the mummified front of his head, having been removed and replaced during the original embalming process, was stolen. It ended up in the possession of Nicholas Armez of Brittany by 1796, and he occasionally exhibited the well-preserved face. His nephew, Louis-Philippe Armez, inherited it and also occasionally exhibited it and lent it out for study. In 1866, Napoleon III persuaded Armez to return the face to the government for re-interment with the rest of Richelieu’s body.

The French Revolution also destroyed the chapel, which has not been completely restored to this day and is only opened on special occasions. Our photo tour below includes photos of the present day chapel.

The 20th Century again brought a major transformation to the Sorbonne and the University of Paris. Following contentious demonstrations and riots at the University in 1968, in 1970 the University of Paris was reorganized into 13 autonomous successor universities, four of which occupy the historic building of the Sorbonne, as noted above.

From the Paris-Sorbonne University web site:

Paris Sorbonne University is the main inheritor of the old Sorbonne, which dates back to the 13th century. It was one of the first universities in the world.

The biggest complex in France, dedicated to Literature, Languages, Civilizations, Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, is located on the original medieval foundations, and now extends to the Latin Quarter and to other areas in Paris.

The University has two characteristics : rich culture and tradition, with top-quality researchers, and therefore an excellent scientific reputation shown through publications and international exchanges; its concern to constantly adapt to present day social and technological changes and to encourage as many students as possible to study at Paris-Sorbonne while preparing for their future careers. The Sorbonne incites its students to think freely, to construct their own judgment, so that they can become responsible and inventive citizens who can promote dignity and peace culture.

Our photo tour to tries to capture some of this famous institution. See the photo captions to find out more about some of the famous people who studied and taught there. Many have had an influence on our lives in America. Also in the photo tour (and potentially of more interest to some) are photos of some Paris fashions that were on display in the main salon as we passed through. Magnifique!

Comments

  1. Magnificent architecture, murals and fashion. Loved the amphitheater and, the hats!

  2. Jim Pijan says:

    It is always such a pleasure to be entertained and educated as you share your travel experiences.
    Thank you

  3. Loved your history of the Sorbonne.
    I actually attended classes there when on a
    Fulbright in France.

  4. Wow that is gorgeous- I had a friend who studied there in the 70’s. Never saw any pix, though. Thanks for the fashion shots- what were they for? Are the amphitheaters classrooms?

    • Hugh Nelson says:

      Jan, I think the fashion shots (too bad I didn’t take more photos of the poster explanations) were student creations based on ideas in art and fashion. One dress was based on cubist paintings by Picasso and Georges Braque, for instance. I have a couple photos showing the art boards that provided some details of the design. I’m guessing the amphitheaters are for large group lectures. We didn’t go everywhere in the building, which is pretty large, but there are some other more conventional classrooms shown in the floor plan. It was obvious from what we saw that they haven’t done too much to bring multi media or computers into the building. So they’ve kept humanities type programs that still work in this facility. The universities that still use the Sorbonne also have classroom space elsewhere I would guess. There are several other university complexes elsewhere in the Latin Quarter and in other parts of town.

    • Brenda Prowse says:

      Bonjour Jan,
      The amphitheaters are indeed lecture or classrooms. I was imagining how wonderful it would be to listen to a lecture there. The fashion shots were of displays that had been set up specifically for this special event.
      Bisous, Brenda

  5. Don Merry says:

    I always wanted to know what the Sorbonne was all about, thanks you two.

  6. Hugh and Brenda — sorry we didn’t get to meet up last week. How was the concert at Notre Dame? A few hours ago I was reading my book “The Piano Shop on the Left Bank” (by Thad Carhart) and they mentioned the Sorbonne. Thanks for the info and pics – it rounds up the background of what Thad was writing about.
    Enjoy!

    • Brenda Prowse says:

      Bonjour Jeanne,
      We too are so sorry to have missed you. We have been to several more concerts at Notre Dame and love being there in the evenings with the shadows and flickering candle light. Sending you the best wishes for magical holidays. Bisous, Brenda

  7. Just finished viewing the pics of the Sorbonne tour – wow. I can just imagine how it felt, Hugh, to sit there in the library and imagine those that have sat in that same chair: the scholars of a hundred years ago! The fashion pics especially interested me, as I had met a costumer in a back, back street in France last year and she made altered couture and Mardi Gras-type costumes that would rival those of the Sorbonne display.
    Thanks for posting!

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