Now mostly the site of the museum comprising 70,000 artworks that would take 100 days to view in its entirety (a single day’s completion would require two seconds per piece), the Louvre Palace has a long and fascinating history. Read on for its 800-year story.
In the 12th century Philippe Auguste decided that he needed a castle on the bank of the Seine. At this point, it was not a palace but a military garrison fortress used as a starting point for hunts and military expeditions, as well as protection from those pesky Normans up north (just ask England in 1066). It was a simple 72 by 78-meter square enclosure surrounding a tower or keep. The chosen location was on the outer limits of the city, which just shows you how much Paris has grown seeing as it’s now slap-bang in the middle.
Over the years, it grew into a splendid palace with functions including a treasury, courtrooms and a prison. From 1360 to 1380, the French King Charles V made it his official residence after leaving the Palais de la Cité (what is now the Conciergerie on the Ile de la Cité). He decked it out with new wings and royal decorations, leading to its new nickname, the Jolie Louvre (pretty Louvre) – its name is theorized by some to come from the Latin word for wolf (Lupus) or kennels used for wolf hunting (Lupara).
In 1528, the keep was razed to the ground by King Francis I, as by that point, the new wings that had been constructed around it rendered its defensive capabilities obsolete. Under the direction of Francis I, as well as subsequent rulers François II and Charles IX (French kings rarely lived long), the architect Lescot oversaw various new constructions and modifications in order to fashion it into a Renaissance-style palace.
These included the replacement of the south wing and the construction of the Petite Galerie, though work stopped due to the Wars of Religion in the 1560s. In the meantime, a new chateau was built to the west and was named after the tile factory upon whose former location it was built, the Tuileries. Catherine de Medici, the queen who oversaw much of this work, was reputed by some to have installed listening holes in the rooms of the Louvre Palace to eavesdrop on others’ conversations, a story from where the phrase “the walls have ears” may originate.
However, it is the Bourbons, the dynasty that would rule France from the early 1600s until the Revolution, who made the Louvre into what it is now. They constructed the Grande Galerie, the huge wing that connects the Louvre and the Tuileries Palace and gives the complex its utterly unique layout and expansive stature. The wing was the largest of its kind in the world, and Charles IV invited artists and craftsmen to live and work there, a tradition that continued until the Napoleonic era.
In 1673, the Cabinet du Roi, a new gallery parallel to the Petite Galerie, became an exclusive art gallery, shown to the nobility and foreign ambassadors. The history of the Louvre as an art gallery and museum perhaps starts here, although it was not available to the wider general public. Then, in 1725, the Salon public exhibition space of the Académie des Beaux-Arts moved to the Louvre, widening the palace’s exhibitive scope.
Many called for it to become a public gallery in its entirety, a way to show off the power and prestige of the French nation to all. These included the famous French philosopher Diderot, who wrote in the Encyclopaedie in 1765 of the benefits that having this collection on show would bring. This wish was granted in 1793, a gesture in the spirit of the egalitarianism of the Revolution. It was also to mark the year anniversary of the deposition of the King. He and his wife had stayed at the neighboring Tuileries Palace after their deposition, awaiting their grim fate.
The Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel was then built in 1808 to commemorate Emperor Napoleon’s military victories; shortly after, the Louvre site as it is known today was completed by sweeping away the existing old houses that encroached on the complex and by building the Richelieu and Denon wings, north and south wings respectively. These wings retain these names today and form two of the three main wings of the Louvre Museum. The other main event that gives the Louvre its current layout was the almost entire destruction of the Tuileries Palace during the Paris Commune of 1871. This is why you can now see the Jardin des Tuileries from the entrance to the Louvre.
Everyone knows the story of the Mona Lisa being stolen in 1911. What some might not know is that Picasso himself was a suspect. He was implicated in another case after he knowingly or unknowingly bought stolen paintings, but they couldn’t build a case against him and let him go. Luckily, the real criminal, an Italian carpenter named Vincenzo Peruggia, was caught when trying to flog the painting in Florence a few years later.
Another well-known detail about the Louvre is that the Nazis used the Louvre to stockpile stolen artworks from invaded territories. It was largely empty when they arrived as the French authorities evacuated the most valuable and movable artworks once it was clear Paris would be taken. They hunted down the most valuable and believed they had found the Mona Lisa, but luckily, it was a replica intended to end their search for the original, which probably never left Paris. It now stands as one of the most protected and viewed pieces of artwork in the world, with scores of people crowding around its security perimeter (Tip: to avoid them, go late on a Wednesday).
To Peruggia, the painting, and the Louvre Palace, stood as a sign of French imperial crimes. To millions today (8.6 million visited the Louvre in 2015), the site represents the pinnacle of art, architecture and European high culture. To a historian, the palace represents France’s chaotic and turbulent past.
Why not visit and decide what it means to you?