the treasures of the Hôtel de Bernage, Inalco’s temple of knowledge

The Hôtel de Bernage, the historic site of Inalco in Paris, recently benefited from extensive renovation, which has also enabled its heritage elements to be enhanced. Discover this little-known Parisian heritage.

At number 2 rue de Lille, two stories meet. That, first, of a mansion erected in 1716 by the Marquis de Bacqueville, bought in 1767 by Jean-Louis Bernage who gave it his name and housed several successive tenants; that, then, of the Special School of Oriental Languages ​​to which the hotel was assigned in 1873, by decision of the Ministry of Public Instruction. The building being dilapidated, it had to be consolidated, while adapting it to its new functions.


Orientalizing references

Classrooms were fitted out on the ground floor and on the first floor, as well as the vast office of the administrator, who benefited from an apartment on the two upper levels. The architect Louis Faure-Dujarric, in charge of the work, took the greatest care with the interior decoration, by multiplying the oriental references. It was during these same years that the statue of Antoine-Isaac, Baron Silvestre de Sacy – one of the first French Arabists, considered the tutelary father of the establishment – ​​was added to the paved courtyard and, on the roof , a zoomorphic weather vane symbolizing the alliance of four civilisations, the East, the West, the Near East and Africa.

The hotel in which the Special School of Oriental Languages ​​moved in 1873 is made up of four main buildings around a courtyard.

The fate of the turbulent School

Even if the school expanded in 1933 by acquiring the building at No. 4 next door, it is indeed in the former Hôtel de Bernage that the most remarkable heritage elements are concentrated, which the recent renovation has highlighted. But the fate of the School was eventful. At the beginning of the 1970s, the institution had to outsource a large part of its teaching and research units to Paris and its suburbs, due to the increase in student numbers.

The office of the vice-president of the scientific council where many objects from all over the world are preciously preserved in three high bookcases in dark wood matching the woodwork.

The office of the vice-president of the scientific council where many objects from all over the world are preciously preserved in three high bookcases in dark wood matching the woodwork. ©Sophie Lloyd

Until a building, built in the 13th arrondissement, not far from the National Library of France, could bring them together: the Pole of Languages ​​and Civilizations (PLC), which moved there at the end of 2011. For lack of space, the research department, however, remained exiled to Nogent-sur-Marne. After reflection, it was decided to transfer it to rue de Lille, in the historic headquarters of the School, henceforth called “Maison de la recherche”.

The small lounge houses, under an original chandelier, two paintings from the school's collection: a Tiger painted in Indian ink by Gao Qipei around 1700 and an oil painting by Henri Stufler (last quarter of the 19th century) after a famous painting attributed to the entourage of Gentile Bellini, the Reception of a Venetian delegation in Damascus.  ©Sophie Lloyd

The small lounge houses, under an original chandelier, two paintings from the school’s collection: a Tiger painted in Indian ink by Gao Qipei around 1700 and an oil painting by Henri Stufler (last quarter of the 19th century) after a famous painting attributed to the entourage of Gentile Bellini, the Reception of a Venetian delegation in Damascus. ©Sophie Lloyd

A temple of knowledge

Before its installation, the facades were cleaned, pending the interior renovation in 2019. The objective of the latter was twofold: to provide optimal research conditions and to enhance the heritage. In the less “noble” spaces, fourteen laboratories and an auditorium have been set up. Restorations were carried out at the same time, including the fire-fighting treatment of the many woodwork lining the corridors and lounges of the former private mansion. The result is successful.

Its oriental mosaic in the entrance hall on the ground floor, enhanced with the School's initial monogram – an intertwined L and O – announces the vocation of the place.  ©Sophie Lloyd

Its oriental mosaic in the entrance hall on the ground floor, enhanced with the initial monogram
de l’École – an intertwined L and O – announces the vocation of the place. ©Sophie Lloyd

Reopened in 2020, the Research Center was immediately labeled “Heritage of regional interest”. And in September 2020 it took part in the European Heritage Days for the first time – and rightly so. You enter this temple of knowledge through a discreet door. In the hallway, the floor mosaics have regained their brilliance, adorned with floral motifs, intertwined crescent moons – symbols of the Orient – ​​and the establishment’s monogram, formed of the stylized letters L and O.

Under the ceiling of the vestibule, on the first floor of the hotel, sculpted cartouches reproduce in gold letters several historical symbols of Inalco

Under the ceiling of the vestibule, on the first floor of the hotel, sculpted cartouches reproduce in gold letters several historical symbols of Inalco ©Sophie Lloyd

A few more steps and here comes the monumental staircase of honor, a true piece of bravery of which the School is proud. Bordered by an elegant stone ramp and punctuated by a bronze torchiere with feminine outlines, it is overlooked by four bas-reliefs. Each represents a life-size oriental character, an Indian, a Chinese, a Persian and a Turk, illustrating the first languages ​​taught in the establishment.

Under the ceiling of the vestibule, on the first floor of the hotel, sculpted cartouches reproduce in gold letters several historical symbols of Inalco, as well as inscriptions in Armenian, Chinese, Arabic and Hindi, which are among the languages ​​taught at the school.  ©Sophie Lloyd

Under the ceiling of the vestibule, on the first floor of the hotel, sculpted cartouches reproduce in gold letters several historical symbols of Inalco, as well as inscriptions in Armenian, Chinese, Arabic and Hindi, which are among the languages ​​taught at the school. ©Sophie Lloyd

A cabinet of curiosities

But the most impressive part of the whole is the enigmatic vault, on which two crescent moons intersect, placed on a golden background seeming to emerge from a Riviera sky. By this staircase, one reaches the office of the former presidents of the School, become that of the vice-president of the scientific council. Here, the atmosphere is studious and unique at the same time. Its three imposing wooden bookcases, in which sit figurines, snuffboxes and other medals of non-Western origin, give the room the appearance of a cabinet of curiosities.

The upper landing of the main staircase of the Maison de la recherche, designed by the architect Louis Faure-Dujarric in the 1880s. ©Sophie Lloyd

The upper landing of the main staircase of the Maison de la recherche, designed by the architect Louis Faure-Dujarric in the 1880s. ©Sophie Lloyd

In a corner of the office, Kyrgyz embroidered tunics also hang on a coat rack. These objects from elsewhere are part of the gifts, diplomatic or not, received by the institution since its foundation. We discover others, during the visit. Thus on the same floor, in the salon d’honneur, four canvases, lent to the Louvre in the past, offer an incursion into mythical Iran of the 19th century, at the time of the Qajar dynasty.

The small lounge This was part of the reception rooms of the apartment once occupied by the administrator and his family.  Today, become a classroom.

The small living room was part of the reception rooms of the apartment occupied by
formerly the administrator and his family. Today, become a classroom. ©Sophie Lloyd

On the second level, in the former small living room transformed into a classroom, hangs a mighty Tiger dating from 1700, finger painted by the Chinese Gao Qipei and an excellent 19th century copy of a Renaissance painting, the Reception of a Venetian delegation at Damascus, attributed to the entourage of Gentile Bellini. According to a recent inventory, the Maison de la recherche holds around fifty of these works and objects whose origins are as varied as they are mysterious. Studies have been launched about them. Number 2 rue de Lille has not yet revealed all its secrets.

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