Le Grand Louvre

The Birth of the Louvre

The Louvre, the richest of museums, has stood for more than 800 years and reflects stages of change in French life through the centuries. Important rulers left their mark on the Louvre by tearing down and rebuilding and gathering extraordinary works of art. The earliest known building was a fortress built about 1190; however, a Frankish tower or fortified area probably existed at the end of the fifth century. The fortress not only protected the city of Paris from invasions from the west but protected the king from his own subjects on the east. This fortress served as an arsenal, its dungeons housed political prisoners, and its rooms held the royal treasures--icons, armor, manuscripts, and jewelry.

The Louvre Becomes a Royal Residence

By about 1400, the Louvre had become a royal retreat where banquets, tournaments, and state occasions were held. It was at this time that elaborate gardens were added and an aviary for exotic birds as well as a host of wild animals. The Louvre lost its military importance when a group of merchants seized possession and moved city walls beyond the Louvre. It became a part-time residence for the kings but still served as an arsenal and prison. Charles V had countless architects, builders, decorators, and artists to modernize and enlarge the Louvre. He added two new wings to replace the north and east walls. This "marvel to behold" no longer exits.

The Louvre Becomes a Palace

In 1415, the French were conquered by the English who then plundered the Louvre. Afterwards, marauders came in and took anything the English had left. Some of the original Louvre treasures now belong to other European museums. The Louvre, just an arsenal and prison once again, was neglected for 150 years and its buildings fell into ruin. In 1527, the structure was torn down by Francis I and required four months to be demolished. The thinking of the day was that the royal residence should reflect wealth and culture rather than the might of its ruler. Thus, Francis I, in 1546, put artisans to work erecting a palace, the beginning of the Louvre as we know it today. Francis I died just eight months later, and his son, Henry II, continued the building efforts with such style and grace that the Louvre personifies all that is meant by "French taste."

Henry II had such imagination and grand plans for the Louvre that it was more than 300 years before these plans became reality. Each king after Henry II attempted to complete the plans for the Louvre--it was a "work-in-progress." At times it was a strange mix--new buildings finished and unfinished, ancient structures in the midst of new buildings, and old battlements and towers that were strongholds as well as palace. Construction was interrupted on occasion by civil strife, but only briefly.

The Louvre Becomes the Artistic Capital of the World

During the reign of Henry IV, the Louvre began to become the artistic capital of the world. Hundreds of artists and craftsmen lived in the Louvre as guests of the king, a royal tradition which continued until the reign of Napoleon I. Under Louis XIV, the government made it its business to promote art, and by the early 1700's the royal collection contained more than 2400 objects of art. New wings were added to the Palace of the Tuileries, which housed the residence and throne room of Louis XIV; the Petite Galerie, built for Catharine de Medicis, was enlarged; buildings were constructed on three sides of the quadrangle of the old Louvre; the Gallery of the Kings, which had burned previously, was replaced by the Gallery of Apollo. The Louvre was nearing completion; however, when Louis XIV moved to Versailles the Louvre began to fall into disrepair. Hovels and trash filled its courtyards, shops were set up in its entrances, and the poor set up residence in its unfinished buildings. Courtiers lived inside the Louvre's apartments and made changes to suit their own taste. Paris tried to make the Palace a city hall, thus saving it, but the king rejected the idea.

The Louvre Becomes a Museum

In 1793, after the French revolution, the Louvre became a public museum. Art was no longer available only to the upper classes, but became accessible to everyone. All through the 19th century and since, many collectors of art have donated priceless works to the Louvre, requiring more buildings to house these collections. Napoleon instituted renovations of both the interior and exterior of the Louvre and removed all the shops and hovels that filled the Louvre in the 18th century. This period in the history of the Louvre is referred to as the Restoration.

Napoleon III gave the Louvre its final form. He had two blocks of buildings constructed to join the wings of the Louvre to the Tuileries; however, the Palace of the Tuileries was later burned and demolished, then replaced by the Gardens of the Tuileries. The Louvre is unique to French culture, but it belongs to all mankind.

A Selection of Works in Le Grand Louvre
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