The Academy was founded at the Palazzo Capranica in 1666 by Louis XIV under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Charles Le Brun and Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The Academy was from the 17th to 19th centuries the culmination of study for select French artists who, having won the prestigious Prix de Rome (Rome Prize), were honored with a 3, 4 or 5-year scholarship (depending on the art discipline they followed) in the Eternal City for the purpose of the study of art and architecture. Such scholars were and are known as pensionnaires de l'Académie (Academy pensioners). One recipient of the scholarship in the 17th century was Pierre Le Gros the Younger.
The Academy was housed in the Palazzo Capranica until 1737, and then in the Palazzo Mancini from 1737 to 1793. In 1803 Napoleon Bonaparte moved it to the Villa Medici, with the intention of perpetuating an institution once threatened by the French Revolution and, thus, of retaining for young French artists the opportunity to see and copy the masterpieces of the Antiquity or the Renaissance and send back to Paris their "envois de Rome", the results of the inspiration they had gained in Rome. These "envois" were annual works, sent to Paris to be judged, and were a compulsory requirement for all the pensionaries.