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Louvre Museum Picture

The Louvre

Even at its earliest years, the Louvre has always been a stronger symbol of France’s position in the world than it has been an occupied palace. Indeed, for much of its history it has been vacant of any official occupant. Even during those times, it embodied France’s sense of itself.

The Louvre was originally a fortress palace that would give the king of France a degree of security and convey to Europe the administration of a great realm. Philip Augustus (r. 1180-1223) built a large feudal tower which gave ample warning to any enemies advancing on the capital and enjoyed a degree of notoriety throughout Europe.

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All that remains of the donjon in the medieval Louvre. (Photo taken by Pierre-Emmanuel Malissin et Frédéric Valdes and can be found at http://www.galerie.roi-president.com)

The city wall Charles V (r. 1364-1380) built around his capital amplified the image of security and the defense of the realm. The message sent to his neighbors was one of bold control.

There were many times in which the Louvre was neglected, though. For example, during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), instead of a monarch, it housed arms and prisoners.

Francis I (r. 1515-1547) turned his back on the past and razed the tower in order to refashion the building to be more fitting of a Renaissance-style palazzo. Instead of defense, it now affirmed royal glory and humanistic advancement. Once again, the Louvre conveyed to the world what France thought of itself.

Henry II (1547-1559) and Catherine de Medici chose to live in the more comfortable Les Tournelles until he took the lance to his eye and left his widow to rule as Regent. In grief, Catherine razed Les Tournelles and built a new palace just to the west of the Louvre. It was called the Tuileries, named after the tile kiln that occupied the location. (It didn’t have the Louvre’s stately grandeur and can’t be compared now because it is lost to history;  the Communards of 1871 burned it to the ground.) What lasting gift the Tuileries did give the Louvre was its magnificent gardens.

Bernini's baroque plans for the Louvre (shown here) were never implemented because palace in-fighting drove him away.

The Louvre grandeur was amplified by Henry IV (r. 1589-1610), Louis XIII (r. 1610-1643), and especially Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715). During this time, they added a wing and even lured the baroque genius Bernini from Rome to design an east entrance. The portico-style entrance was never executed due to palace in-fighting. In the end, a more subdued Classical facade was installed. It was likely a turning point for the overall look of the city; it would be forever rooted in Classical forms.

Even during this time of fevered building activity, the Louvre was not finished; Louis XIV starved the project of funds as he preferred to place his attention and his person in Versailles (it is no accident that Louis avoided Paris as mobs had threatened his own life when younger and recent memory provided examples of regicide).

Bird's Eye View of the Louvre

Birds eye view of the Louvre. Source: Dodge, Mary Mapes St. Nicholas an Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks (New York: The Century Co., 1886) 578

Having no need for a palace, the First Republic housed the Musée de la République in the building in 1793. Napoleon attempted to restore the rundown building, but–like most of his urban planning–real progress had to wait for Napoleon III. The courtyard to the west was completed as an enormous piazza while tenement housing which divided the Louvre from the Tuileries was removed.

Francois Mitterrand (president of the Fifth Republic during the 1980s) gave the Louvre its final, undeniable symbolic flare. He aimed to turn the Louvre into the most significant of his grand projects. He relocated government offices and allowed the museum to expand into the space. Further renovations improved the building’s function as a museum. Finally, and more controversially, he commissioned I. M. Pei to design a new entrance. At the time, the choice of a pyramid struck many as a modernistic intrusion on the Classical architecture. Whether the aesthetics are successful or not, what the choice did was to complete the Louvre’s most recent symbolic framing as a center for some of the western world’s greatest art treasures.

Philip Augustus’ Louvre was a symbol of raw military power. The Renaissance Louvre was the embodiment of stately ceremony. The Musée du Louvre represents the richness of expression found in art throughout the ages. Like the the city of Paris itself, the Louvre has managed to reinvent itself as a meaningful symbol of its time for over a thousand years.