The history of the one-time medieval fortress and now French icon, tourist attraction, and repository of many of the world’s most famous paintings, the Louvre.
The Louvre is one of the largest and most famous museums in the world. Today, it is open to the public and has about 8.8 million visitors a year but it has not always been that way. The Louvre was once a medieval fortress that was turned into a palace. Over the years, royals accumulated their collection of art and hung them on the walls.
The palace was renovated and expanded several times. Its structure and function has been transformed throughout the years and has its collection has survived major revolutions and wars. Today, its 650,000 square feet of gallery space contains 70,000 iconic works of art that give us a pictorial view of our history.
The Louvre was originally a medieval fortress, built by Philip II in the late 12th century. The origin of the name is unknown but there have been a few theories. Some French historians hypothesize that it comes from Leouar which means “castle”, while others believe that it came from the Latin word “rubras” meaning “red soil” or “red place”. The fortress was erected to defend the weak spots of Paris but as the city grew it ceased to be a defensive structure. In the 14th century, Charles V turned the Louvre into a royal palace but kings did not use it as a permanent residence until the reign of Francis I. By this time, the palace had been virtually abandoned. In 1541, Francis I had the original palace destroyed to make way for a new structure.
Francis I was an art connoisseur and spent lavishly on art. He patronized many Italian artists and convinced Leonardo da Vinci to come to France. Leonardo did not do a lot of painting in France but he brought some of his greatest works, including the Mona Lisa which is the Louvre’s centerpiece today.
Mona Lisa behind bulletproof glass at the Louvre
Construction continued during the reigns of Henry II, Francois II and Charles IX. Henry II rebuilt the south wing of the Louvre and also had the west wing reconstructed, which was named after its architect Pierre Lescot. Under the reigns of Francois II and Charles IX, Lescot demolished the south wing and replaced it with a duplicate of the Lescot Wing. In 1564 the wife of Henry II, Catherine de Medici, commissioned a palace to be built to the west, on the site of the tile factories. The palace is now known as the Palais des Tuileries. In 1566, Catherine asked Lescot to build the Petite Galerie to close off the garden between the southern wing of the Louvre and the river wall. The Wars of Religion stopped all construction work at the Louvre in the late 1560s.
Under Henry IV, the Grand Galerie was built to connect the Louvre with Palais des Tuileries. The new building was over a quarter of a mile long and a hundred feet wide. At that time, it was the longest building of its kind in the world. Henry IV invited artists and craftsmen to live and work on the building’s lower floors.
After Henry IV was assassinated on the 14th of May 1610 his wife, Marie de Medici, commissioned a series of 24 paintings from Peter Paul Rubens in 1621 for the Palace of Luxembourg but it is now on display at the Richelieu wing of the Louvre.
The Meeting of Marie de Médicis and Henri IV at Lyon (1622) by Peter Paul Rubens
Around 1642, Louis XIII doubled the length of the Lescot Wing to the north. His architect Jacques Lemercier also began constructing the north wing heading east. Louis XIV expanded the Louvre much further during his reign, quadrupling the Cour Carree and restoring the Petite Galerie. He also added the Grand Cabinet du Roi and the Galerie d’Apollon. The last of the medieval Louvre was torn down to be replaced by a colonnade designed by Claude Perrault. The east facade of the Louvre was completed around 1680 but the roof of the colonnade was left unfinished.
Louis XIV was a voracious art collector and the paintings at the Louvre grew from 150 to 2,376 during his reign. Many of his paintings were displayed at the Galerie d’Apolyon where art lovers were allowed to visit. When the court moved to Versailles in 1681, Louis XIV took 26 of his paintings with him.
South facade of the Renaissance Louvre, painted by Zeeman c. 1650
The Tuileries Palace connected by the Grande Galerie to the Renaissance Louvre on Merian’s 1615 map of Paris
Plans to install permanent public galleries within the Louvre were discouraged due to the condition of its buildings. The north and east wings of the Cour Carree were floorless and roofless and shanty towns had sprung up. Louis XV had the courtyard vacated and the facades restored in 1754 after complaints from the public.
Under Louis XVI’s reign, Comte de la Billarderie d’Angiviller became the director general of royal buildings. His project was to create a museum at the Louvre. With funds from the king, he bought many European masterpieces and significant works by lesser known artists. His buying spree ended when the funds were cut off and diverted to France’s support of the American Revolution.
The French monarchy was formally abolished on September 21, 1792. On August 10, 1793, the Grand Galerie became known as the Museum Central des Arts and was opened to the public. The palace and the works of art inside it now belonged to the nation. The new regime restored the great paintings of the royal collections and constructed the roof of the Cour Carree. The works displayed at the museum included paintings confiscated from aristocrats and religious institutions. The museum directors labeled the works with the names of the previous owners, which confused the viewers as the busts of Plato and Alexander the Great were mistaken for the Duc de Brissac and the Prince de Condé – the previous owners.
Under Napoleon’s reign, the museum was named the Musée Central de la République but the following year it was changed to the Musee Napoleon. Baron Dominique-Vivant Denon was named as the first director of the museum. He accompanied Napoleon in his Egyptian campaign and took crates of mummies, canopic jars, statuettes, winding clothes and other artifacts to Paris. In Italy, the imperial forces took over 500 paintings from the Vatican. Some of the Pope’s sculptures were also taken.
In 1806, Napoleon evicted the last academics from the Louvre, and commissioned the architects Pierre Fontaine and Charles Percier to build the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. The roofs of the Cour Carree were replaced and its facades restored, and a wing parallel to the Grand Galerie was also initiated. After Napoleon’s downfall in 1814-15 they had to return over 5,000 pieces of art.
Military review in front of the Tuileries in 1810, by Hippolyte Bellangé The Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, which can be seen on the right of this painting, was originally erected as a gateway of the Tuileries palace.
After Napoleon, more construction and renovations were carried out at the Louvre. During the Paris Commune in 1871, the Communards set fire to the Tuileries Palace. The entire palace, along with the Richelieu Library, were destroyed in the fire. The ruins were not cleared until 1882.
During World War I and II, the museum evacuated its valuable works of art. The pieces were sent in crates to private chateaus throughout France. The Louvre became a clearinghouse for art and personal items confiscated by the Nazis from wealthy French families.
By the mid-1960s, the Louvre was already one of the most popular tourist destinations. The number of visitors was growing and more space was required for its growing collection. In 1981, Francois Mitterand proposed the Grand Louvre project to renovate the building. The American architect Ieoh Ming Pei suggested moving the Ministry of Finance out of the Richelieu wing. Pei also constructed a glass pyramid for the central courtyard. Pei’s pyramid was inaugurated on March 30, 1989 and the Inverted Pyramid was completed in 1993.
Since 1993, The Louvre has become an autonomous public institution with its own director. The museum is home to many stunning works of art and antiquities and receives around 15,000 visitors a day. The Louvre has been the site of several major events in France and has become a beloved icon of Paris.
The large glass pyramid seen at night