It is the largest museum anywhere in the world and home to countless pieces of art that, while they might not be technically priceless, come with price tags so extraordinary they are available to only a small fraction of humanity.
The Louvre is breathtaking in many ways – including the staggering amount of people who seem permanently camped around a specific painting of a woman known to the world as Mona Lisa. This is an art museum of gigantic proportions, guaranteed to keep art lovers occupied for most of the day – or even days if you happen to get lost within its cavernous maze.
This is where the old and the new merge, with the oldest parts of the Louvre dating back to the 12th Century and its iconic glass pyramid – which by the way was first met with withering Gaelic hostility – opening in 1989. One of the most visited spots on the planet, the Louvre is one of the places you need to experience at one point or another in your life. Well, if you’re an art lover at least. For those who can’t stand the idea of ambling through endless hallways filled with some of the most extraordinary art in the world, then this probably isn’t for you.
The Louvre Today
Before we go back to the 12th Century, let’s begin with the Louvre today. Situated in the 1st arrondissement (district) of Paris just north of the Seine, the Louvre covers a massive 72,735 square meters (782,910 square feet) of space – equal to roughly half the size of the Pentagon – and that’s a colossal building.
Inside this enormous space, you can find roughly 35,000 pieces of art on display, though it’s actual collection is thought to be in the region of 380,000. In 2019, 9.6 million people visited the Louvre, making it the most visited museum on the planet. Numbers plunged in 2020 – I assume that was because of the pandemic and not down to lack of interest – but overall it has consistently ranked as one of the most popular tourist spots anywhere in the world.
The Louvre Castle
Long before the Louvre was an art museum it was simply a humble royal palace and before that a fortified castle – but even back then it had one eye on protecting priceless treasures. The Louvre Castle was constructed during the reign of King Philip II between 1190 and 1209 AD, to act as a well-defended fortress while Phillip was off galavanting during the Crusades but also a secure place to keep his treasures and archives.
The original castle was square and measured 78 metres by 72 metres (255 by 246 ft), with a 10 metre (32 ft) wide moat around it. In 1200, the Grosse Tour (Big Tower) was built at its centre, with a diameter of 15.6 metres (51.1ft) and a 30 metre (98.4 ft) tall wall built around it which was a hefty 4.25 metres (13.9ft) thick at its base.
Over the coming centuries, the castle was enlarged and made a little more homely by Charles V of France, until the word castle was eventually replaced by palace. There isn’t much left of this original structure, but parts of the foundations can still be seen on the lower floor of the Sully wing.
Things gathered steam during the 16th Century. The heady period known as the Renaissance was already underway, when the Europeans finally began clambering out of the black hole that had been the dark ages and when cultural, artistic, political and economic aspects were given a rebirth.
This was also when the Louvre’s most famous guest first arrived and I guess she just never left. When Francis I purchased Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, it’s unlikely that many would have foreseen that this painting would go on to be the most famous and valuable piece of artwork ever.
Francis I also commissioned architect Pierre Lescot and sculptor Jean Goujon to modernize the Louvre into a Renaissance-style palace and this continued into the reigns of Francis I’s successors Henry II, François II, Charles IX and Henry III – yes France seemed to rattle through kings at a breakneck speed at this point. During this time, the old west wing of the Louvre Palace was demolished and rebuilt into what is today the Lescot Wing of the museum and various upgrades were made to the royal apartments.
Work came to a grinding halt during the rather ominous sounding French Wars of Religion, a period of war and popular unrest which lasted between 1562 and 1598 between the Catholics and the Huguenots.
The Grand Design
In 1589, the French King, Henry III was murdered by a Catholic fanatic and was replaced by Henry IV, who converted to Catholicism and so began the age of the House of Bourbon. Almost immediately, Henry IV set out his Grand Design to transform the Louvre and the area around it, by removing much of the remaining medieval fortress and once and for all turning it into a delightful royal palace fit for a new king.
The most significant improvement here was the construction of the Grande Galerie, which would link the Louvre and the Palais des Tuileries which sat opposite. This was designed by architects Jacques II Androuet du Cerceau and Louis Métezeau, with the result being nothing short of sensational at the time. Built between 1595 and 1610, the Grande Galerie is almost half a kilometre (0.2 miles) in length and when it first opened it was the longest building of its kind in the world.
The King, being an art lover, invited hundreds of artists to live and work in the building’s lower floors, a tradition that continued for another two hundred years until Napoleon scrapped it.
Louis XIII ordered that the Lescot Wing be doubled in size in the early 17th Century, with a central pavilion also added which went on to become the Pavillon de l’Horloge, while his successor Louis IX commissioned a raft of additions or changes, which included the remodelling and completion of the Palais des Tuileries, the doubling in length of the South Wing, the decoration of the Pavillon du Roi, the creation of the Grand Cabinet du Roi, and the building of a small chapel.
This was a glorious period for the Louvre as it seemed to grow in all directions and essentially became the structure, or set of structures, that we see today. But at this time it still belonged to the crown, along with everything inside. It was a lavish affair, but available to only a small fraction. What could possibly go wrong?
The French revolution exploded in 1789, on the back of high unemployment, high food prices, terrible harvests and growing resentment towards the royal family. A National Assembly was formed which passed a series of reforms that included, the abolition of feudalism, state control of the Catholic Church and extending the right to vote.
The screw began to tighten on the royal family and in 1792 Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antionette were both imprisoned before being executed. What followed wasn’t pretty, with the so-called ‘Reign of terror’, a frenzied attempt to kill off the remaining counter-revolutionaries, responsible for the deaths of around 16,000 people.
The Louvre itself was effectively handed over to the people, with the National Assembly declaring that it would be “a place for bringing together monuments of all the sciences and arts”. It reopened on 10th August 1793, and for the first time, the everyday men, women and children were welcomed into the Louvre – for three days per week that was. At the time, the collection included 537 paintings and 184 objects of art, though this began to quickly expand once French armies began bringing back looted art from abroad.
France’s most famous Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte took control of the country in 1804. He had already held the title of First Consul of France for five years and as I just mentioned his foreign adventures frequently yielded new land and new treasure.
Napoleon ordered that a parallel building to the Grande Galerie be constructed, while the Musee Louvre was renamed in honour of the great and all-powerful leader as the Musee Napoleon. After his banishment and return and banishment again, France experienced its brief ‘Restoration’ with two kings sitting briefly on the throne before eventually being again kicked off by a man with an all too familiar name – Napoleon III.
It was during his reign that the great structure of the Louvre was finally completed, with the addition of the two large wings on either side of the Cour Napoleon, which doubled the size of the entire Louvre. In 1861, Napoleon III bought 11,835 artworks including 641 paintings, Greek gold and other antiquities of the Campana collection (one of the nineteenth century’s greatest collections of Greek and Roman sculpture and antiquities).
The Paris Commune
In 1870, the French once again found themselves at war as the Franco-Prussian conflict began. To put it bluntly, this was an absolute disaster for France and in particular, Napoleon III who was captured by Prussian forces and who lived out the remainder of his short life under lock and key in a castle in Germany.
Prussian forces steamrolled towards Paris and laid siege to the French capital for four months before it finally capitulated. The French government had long since scampered away to Tours, leaving a city seething with working-class radicalism. Long story short, once the Prussians had effectively gained control of Paris then withdrawn back across the Reine, many in Paris refused to accept the authority of the returning French government and the city was run as the Paris Commune for two months.
That was until the arrival of massed French troops on 21st May 1871 to begin what came to be known as La Semaine Sanglante (Bloody Week). As pitched street battles commenced, it quickly became clear that the rebels were no match for the well-trained soldiers and in an act of vengeful desperation, they began setting fire to various buildings deemed as symbolic of France’s hated royal past.
The Tuileries Palace, which once sat roughly opposite where the current Louvre Pyramid sits, was almost entirely destroyed in the fire, which lasted a full 48 hours. The Richelieu library of the Louvre was also destroyed while sections of the Grande Galerie were also damaged. Only the quick thinking of the fire brigades and museum curators saved the remainder of the Louvre.
By the late 1930s, the French had another problem in the form of the sneering, screeching arch-villain Adolf Hitler. I won’t shame the French military by mentioning their capitulation to the Nazis – OK I will, but it goes no further than that.
In 1939, the Louvre was quietly closed for three days under the guise of restoration. In fact, 203 separate vehicles hauled away almost everything within the Louvre to the Château de Chambord, southwest of Paris. The crates in the trucks were all given small coloured stickers to show their level of importance. A yellow circle for very valuable art pieces, green for major works and red for world treasures – the Mona Lisa has three red stickers just in case you’re wondering.
Much of this art was moved secretly between chateaus during the war to evade the Nazi, who had been ordered to bring what they could find back to Germany. The prized Mona Lisa remained well out of German hands and ended the war at the Musée Ingres in Montauban in southern France.
What we have come to know as the modern Louvre really came into being during the 1980s when the Grand Louvre project commenced. It was divided into three geographical zones, the Sully wing to the east (the ‘old’ Louvre, surrounding the Cour Carrée); the Richelieu wing to the north (on the rue de Rivoli) and the Denon wing to the south (next to the Seine).
And it was here that perhaps the most iconic image associated with the Louvre appeared. The Louvre Pyramid was completed in 1989, composed of 603 rhombus-shaped and 70 triangular glass segments along with plenty of metal poles. The pyramid reaches a height of 21.6 metres (71 ft) and has a base area of 1,000 square metres (11,000 sq ft). As I mentioned earlier, when it first opened, it received a somewhat frosty reception from the French, many of whom questioned why this modern glass pyramid was sat in front of buildings of such refined renaissance elegance. But it’s fair to say that the French, and indeed the Parisians, have taken the Pyramid to heart, and alongside the Eiffel Tower, it has become one of the symbols of Paris.
Today at the Louvre
On average, the Louvre receives 15,000 visitors each day, which as you’ll probably imagine tends to involve plenty of lines and slow-moving traffic, yet it still represents not only the richest collections of art anywhere in the world but one of the most extraordinary groups of buildings you are likely to visit, which, as we’ve just seen, act as a map through French history over the last 800 years.
As I mentioned earlier, there are around 35,000 pieces of art in the Louvre, and now I’m going to tell you about each and everyone – just kidding. But to give you an extremely broad overview, the vast collection is broken into eight curatorial departments; Egyptian antiquities, Near Eastern antiquities, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman, Islamic Art, Sculptures, Decorative Art, Paintings and Prints and Drawings. There is so much inside the Louvre, that if you were to spend just 30 seconds on each piece, it would take you 100 days to see it all.
The Louvre is gargantuan in everything it does, from its size to its art and the series of complex undertakings over hundreds of years to create the museum that we see today. There is simply no place quite like the Louvre.