12 Nov From fortress to world’s most famous museum: the LOUVRE
Has the Louvre always been the famous museum that we know today?
No, not always…
The LOUVRE has been the heart of Paris for over 800 years. It is located at the very centre of the city with many of Paris’s most landmarks spread out in a circle around it. There’s the ‘Sacré-Coeur Basilica’ at the top of ‘Montmartre‘, the ‘Notre-Dame Cathedral ‘, ‘Garnier Opera House’, the ‘Eiffel Tower’ and of course, the ‘Arc de triomphe’ at the end of the ‘Champs-Elysées’.
The Louvre was first built in 1190, by King Philip Augustus as a fortress. In it, he kept not only his jewels, but also his dogs and his prisoners of war.
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Today, at the ‘Cour Carrée’ (‘Square Court of the Louvre’), there’s a circle visible on the ground. This circle marks the exact spot where King Philip I built his fortress eight centuries ago. Beneath it, the fortress’s dungeon still exists. This is where prisoners were chained and tortured. It is believed that lepers were kept there too, and the word Louvre may come from the old French word ‘lépreux’ used for people afflicted with this disease. Philip may also have kept the dogs that he used to hunt wolves there, and such a kennel would have been called a ‘louveterie’. So the etymological debate surrounding the name of the world’s most famous museum is quite a fascinating one.
The kings who succeeded Philip converted the Louvre fortress into a Royal Palace.
François I rebuilt the Château du Louvre, transforming it from a medieval fortress into a building of Renaissance splendor.
For 350 years, the Kings of France added pretty rooms and so much more to the Palace as their pleasures became more elaborate. Then, King François I tore the fortress’s medieval tower down, and built a courtyard called the ‘Cour Carrée’ in its place. This courtyard was overlooked by an imposing and ornamental facade.
Francis I was born two years after the first voyage of Columbus and was the first example of a Renaissance man in France. He was a great linguist, an accomplished tennis player, and a lover of both hunting and masquerade parties. But more than anything else, he was a lover of art!
Francis I had a great admiration for the Italian School of Painters and he bought several paintings including ‘The Holy Family’ by Italy’s most popular contemporary painter: Raphael.
Francis I persuaded Leonardo da Vinci, an Italian painter, to leave Italy for France. The artist brought with him the first ever work of art to enter the French royal collection; the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda). There’s a legend that says that Da Vinci died in the arms of Francis I.
After the artist’s death, Francois I purchased various paintings from Da Vinci’s studio: although Da Vinci had given names to a lot of his paintings (e.g ‘The Virgin and The Child with Saint-Anne’), nobody knows for sure what DaVinci called what we today know as the Mona Lisa.
Henry II, son of Francis I, rebuilt what his father had destroyed. Henry didn’t have much interest in the pure Italian style, but instead dedicated his whole life to favoring the embellishments of the French Renaissance.
Henry II married the Italian Catherine of Medici when he was 14. At the age of 17, he met a French noblewoman called Diane de Poitiers. She was in her thirties and a widow. For the next 20 years and until his death, and in Catherine’s presence, Henry and Diane were inseparable. His mistress raised one child for him, while his wife had 10! But it was his love for Diane that he proclaimed all over the Louvre. (The double D’s above his monogram H stand for Diane).
His wife thus decided to build a palace of her own, far away from all those ‘Dianas’. ‘The Tuileries’ was a name associated with some of the most glorious but also the most grotesque events in French history.
It was Catherine’s wish to join the two palaces with one incredibly long gallery, called ‘The Grand Gallery’, but died before her dream could come true. It was her son-in-law, Henry IV who would bring the idea to fruition. It took 30 years to build the most spectacular segments of the Louvre, a passageway of 950 feet, on the right bank of the Seine River!!
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After the death of Henry IV, his wife Queen Marie de Medici, issued the following order to the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens: “Glorify me and my late husband in a series of paintings depicting my glorious career and his.” In the Louvre, there’s a whole room dedicated to the 24 canvases that Rubens painted. It took the artist three years to paint them all. 23 of them depict the most important historical events in Queen Marie de Medici’s life. The 24th canvas is a fictional representation of a wished-for reconciliation with her son King Louis XIII, but this reconciliation never came to pass. Their relationship would reach the lowest point when Louis realized he was being manipulated by his mother into giving her all the power.
The son of the Marie de Medici, Louis XIII was remembered for mainly two achievements. He continued the royal tradition of improving the Louvre and he also removed the great wall of Paris. But, his son Louis XIV, would be his greatest achievement of all.
He was glorified as a patron of the arts. When his first son was born, he held a festival the ‘Cour du Carousel’ that was the most spectacular the Louvre had ever seen.
Louis XIV would lived in the Louvre for 17 years. During that time, he finished the Cour Carrée (‘The Square Court.’) But probably his greatest contribution to the Louvre were the Colonnades which can be found on the outside of the building.
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Molière performed his first play for the King in the ‘Salle des Caryatides.’
Louis XIV had a deep interest in painting. He bought many works of arts from schools all over of Europe, including works by Carracci, Titian, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Giorgione to name but a few.
He was an avid collector of art, and under his reign, the collection grew from 150 to 2376 paintings! His lifelong infatuation with art, architecture (not to mention himself) bankrupted the Treasury of France. In 1670, he left Paris for Versailles, and took all of his artwork with him.
On the 10th of August 1893, the Revolutionary Government opened the ‘Musée Central des Arts’ in the Grand Gallery of the Louvre
In the 18th Century, the Louvre was no longer the home to royalty and so artists and merchants were allowed to live there. As a result it became the artistic hub of Paris. It opened its door to the public for the first time, and proved to be fantastically popular.
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The first Guillotine of the French Revolution was set up in the ‘Cour du Carousel’. This is where Louis XVI would be guillotined in 1793.
At the beginning of the First French Republic, the Louvre was declared the ‘Musée de la Nation’ (‘The Nation’s Museum’).This would mark the moment when art ceased to be just the preserve of the rich and would finally become accessible to the broader public.
And so it was to be was for 6 years until a new landlord moved into the Louvre: Napoleon Bonaparte himself.
Bonaparte was a military hero during the Revolution, and after a ‘coup d’état’, he crowned himself Emperor. He built the Arc du Carrousel over the Cour du Carrousel, and crowned it with equine statues that he had taken from a church in Venice. He decorated the Louvre in a manner that no one had seen before or since and filled it with the best pieces of art that the rest of Europe could offer. Thousands of works of arts were sent to Paris from the many palaces, libraries and cathedrals in the countries conquered by Napoleon.
Napoleon renamed the Louvre to the ‘Musée Napoleon’
To Napoleon, “every work of genius must belong to France”, a point of view not quite shared with the Germans, Italians, Spanish or Dutch, and following his defeat, they all came to claim back their treasures. Due to French tenacity and persuasion however, many of Napoleon’s acquisitions remained in the Louvre, such as Calvary’ by Mantegna or ‘The Virgin and Child’, by Cimabue. This latter was the first painter to give a human look to saints and angels almost 700 years ago. Other paintings such as ‘The Money Changer and His Wife’ by Quentin Matsys, remained because Napoleon had bought them along with other many archaeological treasures.
The Napoleonic splendor of the Louvre lasted for 12 years. His rule ended with ‘The Battle of Waterloo’ in 1815.
It was in the mid 19th century under Napoleon III that the Louvre underwent its most expansive phase, with the completion of the multi-building complex.
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Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte became Emperor. He and his Empress Eugenie got married in the Louvre and were the greatest builders the Louvre has ever known.
They did more building in five years than all their predecessors had done in seven hundred! Because he thought the Grand Gallery of Henry IV wasn’t sumptuous or wide enough, Napoleon III tore down and rebuilt a large part of it. It was left to Napoleon III to finally complete the grand design that had been conceived three centuries earlier. When it was finished, it was a scene of royal festivities. The blazing baroque richness was the keynote of everything built by Napoleon III in order to show the world just how rich the French Nation was.
On the 4th of sept 1870 the Communards attacked the Louvre, and the Tuileries burned down
The Palace Catherine de Medici had built was completely destroyed by the fire and lay in ruins for 20 years.
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In 1940, the Germans paraded down the Champs Elysées, crossed the Place de la Concorde, the Tuileries Gardens and marched into the Louvre, expecting to find there the greatest collection of art treasures in the whole world, but they found nothing. Months before the war, some wise frenchmen decided it was safer to completely empty the Louvre, and so they hid all the treasures in secret places all over the country in castles, caves, cellars and private homes… The Nazis never found a single treasure of the Louvre! When the war was finally over, as the treasures came back to the museum, so did the people.
In 1981, Former President Francois Mitterrand introduced his ‘Grand Louvre Project’ with the aim of modernizing the museum. In 1993, the Richelieu Wing that was once the house of the Ministry of Finance was added to the museum.
In the 1990’s the Louvre underwent a major remodeling. Thousands of square meters of new exhibition space were added.
A pyramid made of steel and glass surrounded by three smaller ones, was built in 1989 in the centre of the Main Courtyard (Cour Napoleon) by the architect I.M Pei. This pyramid today serves as the main entrance to the Museum and has become one of the defining landmarks of Paris.
Find out about our best Skip-the-line tickets to the Louvre Museum
Today, the Louvre Museum is both the world’s largest art museum and a historic monument, with more than 72,000 square meters (800,000 square feet) of exhibition space . It houses more than 38,000 pieces of art dating from prehistory all the way up to and including the 21st century.
With about 10 million visitors a year, the Louvre is also the world’s most visited art museum.
Get a skip-the-line ticket and avoid the hassle of the long queues while enjoying a unique experience in the company of a professional guide. Click here to book your ticket.
And when you eventually do walk in to this magnificent building that has changed so much in its lifetime, look around and as yourself if it will still look the same in another hundred years. Based on past experience, it could be anyone’s guess!