There is so much to see in Paris, from famous cafes and great works of architecture, to churches and gardens. But, apart from the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame, there is no other place in Paris that holds within its sculpted walls so many of the secrets to the history of Paris, as well as the treasures of the world… what place is this, you ask? That would be the Louvre, my friends.
The Louvre is more than just another tourist attraction crammed with picture happy Americans sporting baseball caps and fanny packs. This magnificent work of architecture has been at times a fortress, a palace, and at the last, after Napoleon, a museum. Possessing treasures from all over the known world, covering thousands of years of history, it is so intimately connected with French history and culture, that you can properly say, if you haven’t seen the Louvre, you haven’t seen Paris!
The Louvre began in the 13th century on the spot of a smaller fortress, which was built up with massive towers as a sign of the power of the French monarch. A major deterrent to invasion from the enemy, the English, the Louvre was so effective that Henry V decided that rather than attack Paris, he would negotiate terms with the Capetians. The remnants of the original fortress can still be seen underneath the museum in the Salle Basse (Lower Hall). The events which brought the building to its present condition, however, occurred in 1527. Francois I, a Renaissance monarch who had followed the styles and customs of Italy, wanted to remake the Louvre in the image of a Renaissance monarch. For Francois, patronage of the arts was essential to keep up with his smaller rival across the channel, Henry VIII, who could boast of a fantastic Renaissance court, with famous northern artists like Hans Holbein as well as great intellectuals like Erasmus of Rotterdam. The Louvre’s towers were torn down to make way for a magnificent new palace, built in the Italian Renaissance style (which was pioneered by the Medici, whose family would play a major role in French Royal history).
Francois, to outdo Henry or his other rival, Charles V, decorated his palace by recruiting from Italy, and he landed one of the most famous of Renaissance men, Leonardo DaVinci. When you walk through the halls of the Louvre, you can envision courtly music and the great Renaissance master himself walking the halls. It was here that Da Vinci presented his famous lion robot, which walked by a series of winding mechanisms, then stood up and presented flowers to the Queen. Da Vinci brought something else with him… can you guess what it was? The iconic Mona Lisa.
The Mona Lisa…
If you walk through the Grand Gallerie, you may think it goes on forever. It almost does, it is half a mile long! Construction began in 1566 by Charles IX, and was finished by King Henri IV (the first Bourbon). Can you imagine half a mile of famous paintings? The hall was intended to connect the Louvre to the Tuielieres palace on the banks of the Siene, so it had a purpose. Henri IV created many impressive designs for the continued building up of the Louvre, but these were cut short when he was assassinated in 1610. Henri, a Huguenot during the French Wars of Religion, had famously declared “Paris vaut bien une messe” (Paris is well worth of Mass). He converted to Catholicism, but gave religious toleration to Protestants. Hated by both groups, Henri survived no less than 12 assassination attempts, but was never as popular when alive as he became after his death. Such is the celebrity of assassination.
While Henri’s popularity had to age, like fine wine, in order to improve with the masses, his widow, Marie de Medici, wasted no time cultivating hers. She commissioned a series of paintings, ostensibly celebrating her husband, but in point of fact celebrating her own coronation and regency. To do this, she commissioned the greatest painter of the age, Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish painter and court painter to France’s historic enemy, the Spanish). Rubens dazzled with color, merging the mythological with theological and historical scenes, communicating the sense of power and glory of the reigning monarch. This sequence of 24 paintings originally hung in her Luxembourg palace but eventually found their way, like most great art, into the Louvre.
Moving on. Louis XIII completed his father’s plans for increasing the size of the Louvre, but his son, Louis XIV, did even more. The Sun King hated Paris (as much as Paris hated him) but he enlarged the Louvre and managed to bring the famous Italian sculptor and architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (considered one of the greatest sculptors of all time) to redesign the Louvre. Many of Lorenzo’s busts and statues of Louis XIV and his brother, the Duc d’Orleans, are in the Louvre still today. Other artifacts that are on display of the most powerful king in French history include numerous portraits and his crown jewels.
The monumental additions planned for the Louvre came slowly to a halt at this time. Due to Louis XIV’s dislike of Paris, he made his new palace at his father’s old hunting lodge, at Versailles, where he built the most monumental palace that wound up becoming a model for similar palaces in Prussia, Austria and even Italy, which hitherto had reigned supreme in culture. The funding for the Louvre being siphoned off for this project, no significant work was done to the building until the French Revolution.
The Revolution ushered in major changes in French society, and ultimately all of Europe. Before that epoch would come to pass, however, it made its impact on the Louvre. Louis XVI was forced to come and live again in Paris, at the Tuilieres palace. During this time, one of the up and coming painters of French Neoclassical art, Jacques Louis-David, appeared on the scene. He painted for Louis a terrific painting, the Oath of the Horatii. It captures a scene from Roman history, where the Horatii brothers vow to die in defense of the Roman Republic. This scene would be re-interpreted later in light of the Revolution in support of the nascent French Revolutionary Republic. David was the star painter of Republican art, along with Delacroix, painting the symbolism that fit the Republican narrative of freedom over tyranny. David became a major figure in turning the Louvre from a palace into a museum, where aspiring Republican artists could copy old works and produce new ones. It even operated on the new Revolutionary calendar, sporting a 10 day week for which it was open 9 days, and closed on the last for cleaning to start it all over again.
In the midst of the turmoils of the Revolution arose the most titanic figure of the 19th century, who towers above lesser men like Bismarck, or Gladstone, or Lincoln, namely Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon used the Louvre to inaugurate his power, as during the Renaissance with Francois I, by connecting royalty and art. After the fall of Robespierre, David had been incarcerated, as he was considered to be counter-revolutionary. Napoleon rode in on his white horse and brought him to his greatest talents. David’s painting of Napoleon at Lodi in that glorious pose on his trusty steed, Marengo, is a perfect example of the use for propaganda a great painter could be put to. The painting makes victory look triumphant, but in actuality Napoleon fell off his horse and needed rescuing before he drowned in the river.
There are many great works of David’s commissioned by Napolean to be seen in the Louvre, but perhaps the greatest work of all these was that of his coronation, which is prominently displayed in the Louvre. It is life size, and brings the moment to life in a nearly cinematic manner, with its necessary artistic licenses of course. Napoleon ordered David to depict Pope Pius VII as blessing the whole event, when in actuality Pius VII kept his hands folded during the Sacer. Napoleon famously quipped, “I didn’t bring him all the way from Rome to just sit there.” It was in paint, however, that he was to get anything out of that long suffering Pope.
Napoleon also plundered artwork from all over Europe to bring to the Louvre, some of which is still there for us to see today. If you have ever heard the expression, “If you want find a stolen painting, don’t look in the houses of thieves, go to the art museum,” it came about because of Napoleon.
The defeat of Napoleon brought yet another change in the Louvre….its Egyptology wing. Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt had created crucial contacts, which the famous Egyptologist, Champillon, had exploited to carry out his work. In 1826 he became the curator of the Egyptology wing, which hosts many of the world’s most amazing artifacts from ancient Egypt. During this period the Louvre made its way to being a true world class museum rivaling both the British museum in London and the Vatican museum. It added great works of sculpture, Greek and Roman antiquity, and several of Caravaggio’s rejected works from Italy, most famously, The Death of the Virgin.
All in all, one could rightly say the Louvre is France, and France is the Louvre. French culture and language has so long predominated the world, the Louvre contains so many of the world’s treasures, it’s just that important. We can easily say that the cosmopolitan life of Paris is incomplete without the glory of art which is the ultimate expression of human culture, and that represents the crowning of Parisian culture. Now all that remains for you is to visit the Louvre yourself!