Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Photo courtesy of Olivier Ffrench

The Louvre Museum or Grand Louvre is the most famous museum in the world. Its collection includes some of the most important pre-Impressionist art, which are housed in a majestic baroque palace. Its history is bursting with pageantry, stained in blood and forged in fire.

For the reader's convenience, I have divided this article into two parts. The first is devoted to the history of the Palais du Louvre and its role regarding the Paris urban layout. The next post will focus on the famous and controversial renovation designed by the great architect Chinese-American I.M. Pei.


The Louvre complex is located on the banks of the Seine River, northwest of the Île de la Cité (Island of the city, where the Church of Notre-Dame is located).

Extending over 40 hectares, the complex of palaces and gardens forms three large squares. The interior, called Cour Carree ("Plaza Square"), was completed by Napoleon I and is defined by four pavilions: the Arts, Sully (or Clock Pavilion), Marengo.

In the middle, there is the Cour du Carrousel, flanked by the Richelieu and Denon pavilions. Culminates precisely in a roundabout or "carousel" in front of which stands the Arc du Carrousel and a street, the Place du Carrousel.

The largest and external plaza, to the west, in a slightly trapezoidal shape, called Cour Napoleon, is flanked by the Hall of Flowers and the Marsan Pavilion . Both squares, Carrousel and Napoleon, were culminated by Napoleon III. The complex finishes in the Tuileries Gardens.

The Louvre complex was built over many centuries, his style was changing from Romanesque to Renaissance and then the Baroque, and the result not only expresses his stylistic evolution but also its changing role in the urban structure of the French capital.

Evolution of the Louvre Palace. The original fortress of Philip Augustus occupies a small orange square. Later part of it was demolished to create the Cour Carree.


"Louvre" comes from the frank word "leovar", meaning fortress or fortified palace (what in French is called "bastille"). Indeed, the first building in the Louvre was a fortress made by King Philip II of France (Philip Augustus) in 1190-1202, located beside the River Seine in the outskirts of the city of Paris. The city at that time was walled, with its center on the island where now stands the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, and the fortress was located in the end of the town to protect it against possible invasions from the north.

It was built on an area of ​​78 m x 72 m, surrounded by a moat and protected by a wall with bastions at the corners. Its walls had small openings and it was accessed by two doors flanked by two towers, to the south and west.

Inside there was a large courtyard, in the middle of which stood one central cylindrical tower 15 m in diameter and 30 m high. It housed an armory, dungeons and a few real treasures.

Foundations of the old Louvre can still be appreciated in a special exhibition at the museum.

Centuries later, the fort began to house residential functions. King Charles V converted the fortress into a royal residence and decorated with private artworks.

Model existing in the basement of the Louvre.


Subsequent monarchs expanded the palace. Some of the most important additions were the Water Front Gallery (Galerie du Bord de l'Eau) Caterina de Medici, which extends facing the Seine (1564-80).

Water font Gallery in the late sixteenth
Water Front Gallery today

In addition, in 1564 the Tuileries Palace was built (actually it was the site where tiles were made​​, outside the city), located 500 meters west of the Louvre, perpendicular to the Seine.

Philibert Delorme was in charge of the construction of the palace, replaced in 1570 by Jean Bullant.

Photography of the Tuileries, before its destruction.

On one side was the Jardin des Tuileries which, unlike the Palace, still exists today.

Later, in 1595 Henry IV, the great king who made ​​Paris a great European capital, connected the gallery with the Tuileries Palace by the Grand Galerie. This long gallery covering the distance between the two palaces was used by the aristocrats to exercise, who enjoyed to walk while observing art.

Tuileries Palace in 1615. Note that it was not spatially linked to the Louvre, but separated from it by a wall.

Some of the innovations in the design of the gallery included the use of glazed skylights that flooded the space with light, as well as the use of parquet floors.

Louis XIII decided to expand the Louvre itself, demolishing part of the original palace and the ancient Clock Pavilion (Pavillon de l'Horlog). From 1658 to 1670 Louis XIV built  the Cour Carree, which is a large courtyard surrounded by buildings.

Detail. Photo courtesy of David Bank

However, such a complex was not enough for the royalty, and in 1670 Louis XIV (the so-called the Sun King) and his entourage left the Louvre to live in the magnificent palace of Versailles. The Louvre would become then an art gallery, opera house, theater and house other artistic activities.

Public Museum

Before the French Revolution in 1789, the Louvre could be seen only by members of the aristocracy, the clergy and some selected artists. When, stunned and open-mouthed, I was walking through the galleries of the museum, those magnificent halls crammed full of ornamentation and exquisite works, I imagined the feeling of astonishment and glare of revolutionaries when they first entering the palace complex. In 1793 the palace became the first major museum open to the general public, showing works of art belonging to the monarchy and the Church, and taking the name of General Museum of Arts (Musée des Arts General). According to Professor Richard Brettell, from the University of Texas, it was the first time that an international audience could access these works of art, giving rise to "cultural tourism".

The Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, commanded by Napoleon placed there.

Later, Napoleon extended the north wing and placed the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel between the Louvre and the Tuileries.

The emperor used his military campaigns to remove artistic riches of conquered countries, including Spanish, Belgian, Italian and the magnificent collection of Egyptian art that can be seen in the museum. It was precisely the Napoleonic Museum (Musée Napoleon, as it was renamed) which would become the largest museum of all time.


The complex was completed by Napoleon III in 1852, who demolished some old parts and culminated the enclosure of the large complex of Louvre (Napoleon III who also commissioned the Paris Opera).

The Louvre and the Tuileries in 1857
The Louvre and the Tuileries in 1855

It is remarkable how, through the centuries, various monarchs made the effort to bring unity to the complex, which was finally organized around a markedly symmetrical pattern. Precisely, the fact that the galleries are arranged in a slightly oblique angle has an effect on the visual perception and perspective of the complex.

The Louvre in 1895. Photo courtesy of Parisienne de Photographie
The Louvre before the intervention of the I.M. Pei. The pyramid would be placed where the trees.

Unfortunately, in 1870 the Commune revolted against the Second Empire and destroyed and burned the Tuileries Palace. Actually, apparently the mob wanted to burn the whole Louvre complex.

The Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel seen from a destroyed Tuileries Palace.
The Tuileries Garden from the Carousel. Painting by Siebe Johannes, between 1880-1883

The Tuileries Palace after the fire, before being turned down.

This magnificent palace was never rebuilt. On the contrary, was completely demolished during the Third Republic.

German soldiers in the Louvre, during the Nazi occupation in 1940.


As mentioned, in the Louvre was originally outside the city wall and had the role to protect the head of the river Seine.

Paris in 1550. The Louvre is located in the bottom, center.

Napoleon linked the museum to the west of the city by the Rue de Rivoli, a street that comes adorned with statues on the north side of the Louvre.

The Louvre is the beginning of a great urban axis, which starting from the museum connects the Tuileries, the Place de la Concorde, the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe.

During the renovation of Paris by Baron Haussmann, streets were widened not only with the aesthetic purpose to expand the vistas and visually connect the monuments, but to facilitate the movement of troops in case of riots. Connecting the Louvre Museum with the city had a symbolic meaning: the Louvre was for the people.

Later that axis was continue until the La Défense district under François Mitterrand and symbolically joined the Arche de La Défense, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre Pyramid , which development and history I will explain in the next post.

Until then.



Ahem ... Everywhere there is always a shameless tourist ... 


  1. I pondered to myself recently what were the most important things in my life. The answer seems to be clear that art was up there in importance. Why? Frankly, I don't really know. May be someone here can enlighten me?
    As was my wont w
    hen I have some free time, I browsed the marvelous site,, where they keep thousands of digital images for customers to select to have printed into handsome canvas prints for their homes.
    This image jumped out to jolt my reveries: Still life with bread, by the Cubist Georges Braque. Is art like this picture, as essential as bread and water, or should I say bread and wine?

  2. Very interesting and complete article.

    I would have appreciated it more if you had credited the first two pictures with a link to the gallery where you took them.


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