10th August 1793 - The Musée Central des Arts opened its doors for the first time on 10th August 1793. Admission was free and the collection it contained, around 500 paintings, was taken mostly from French royal and aristocratic families. Located in Paris the Louvre is one of the largest palaces in the world and is a shining example of French architecture since the Renaissance. It now contains over 35,000 pieces of art and over 380,000 objects in total. With nearly nine million people coming through the doors a year it is the most visited and one of the most famous museums in the world. The meaning of the word Louvre is something of a mystery. Some believe it comes from the word L’œvre that refers to the structure’s status as the largest building in Medieval Paris. Others suggest that it comes from its position in a forest of oak trees from the French rouvre or derived from a wolf hunting den and the Latin Lupus.
What some people will not know are the origins of the building that date back to the 12th Century. In 1190 King Phillip Augustus built a fort to protect Paris from Invaders. This was at a time when the Anjevin Empire of the English Kings covered much of France. The castle was built around four moats with towers and a 98feet keep at its centre called the Grosse Tour.
However by the 1350s Paris had grown in size and a new wall was built around the city to add to the defences during the 100 Years War with England. Therefore the building became redundant and in 1364 Charles V converted it into a Royal Palace with tapestries, a pleasure garden and sculptures. Much of the redesign was in the early renaissance style. After the death of Charles VI in 1380 however it was left unoccupied for nearly 100 Years.
Moving forward to the 16th Century, Henry II had the King’s Pavilion (Pavillon du Roi) built and his widow, Catherine de Medici, of the famous Florentine family, ordered the construction of a new palace, the Tuileries, in a neighbouring field to improve the comfort levels which were described as rather smelly, outdated and unfitting for a royal family. At the end of this century Henry IV built a waterside gallery that led from the Louvre to the new Tuileries.
In the 17th Century Louis VIII and IX had a major reconstruction including the Clock Pavilion, today called the Pavillon de Sully, and the Apollo Gallery that was completed in 1664. However by 1672 Louis XIV moved the royal seat out to Versailles and for another century it fell into neglect becoming a meeting place for artists and intellectuals. However The French Revolution, which reached its first climax in 1789, led to both the Louvre and Tuileries becoming a place to gather monuments and art and two years later it opened as a museum.
Napoleon renamed the Louvre the Musée Napoleon in 1803 and built a small Arc de Triomphe on the central pavilion of the Tuileries. This included 4 antique bronze horses taken from St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. These horses are thought to be from the 4th Century BC although many think they may be Roman due to metal content and method of manufacture. They were returned to Venice after the collapse of Napoleon’s Empire in 1815. There was also a big increase in the number of exhibits during this time as objects were taken during various conquests including Italian paintings as well as objects from Ancient Egypt and Assyria.
In 1871 a revolt known as the Paris Commune destroyed the Tuileries Palace leaving only the gardens and a few outbuildings surviving. Today the gardens are still a favourite part of Paris for many of its citizens and tourists. During the Second World War most of the moveable exhibits were evacuated when the Nazis moved towards Paris and although it remained open it was mostly empty.
By 1981 President Mitterand removed the only government ministry left in the Louvre Palace and it was then purely a dedicated museum. Later that decade a glass pyramid designed by the Chinese architect I.M. Pei was installed as the new entrance in the centre of the palace by the Place du Carrousel, between the Rue de Rivoli and the Quai François Mitterand. The museum currently occupies 60,000 square metres and houses objects from the 6th Century BC to 19th Century AD. One of its most popular exhibits is the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci, which now lies behind a bulletproof screen.
This piece was stolen in 1911 and Pablo Picasso was questioned about its theft but not charged, as there was no evidence. It was actually stolen by an Italian man called Vincenzo Perugia who was under the false impression that Napoleon had stolen it from Florence and that it should be returned to the City. He worked in the museum and one day hid until it closed for the night. He placed the work under the white smock that employees wore and slipped out unobtrusively when the museum opened the following morning. In November 1913 he offered the painting to a dealer in Florence in return for a reward of 500,000 lire. He took it in a trunk, with a false bottom, on the train to Florence and was persuaded to leave it at the gallery overnight so that it could be expertly examined. When he returned the next day he was arrested. Due to his claims that he felt he was doing his duty he received only a minimal prison sentence. The work was returned to the Louvre where it has remained ever since except when Napoleon had it hung in his bedroom and Jackie Kennedy persuaded the curators to take it on a tour of galleries in New York and Washington.
The Mona Lisa forms a popular trilogy of art works with the Venus de Milo and the Nike of Samothrace. (See earlier blog). Another favourite is Eugene Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” which depicts the Liberty goddess leading a charge in the French Revolution, which is said to have inspired Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
The History of the building will continue to evolve but its position in the history of Paris is central to the city’s story.