The Louvre or the Louvre Museum (French: Musée du Louvre, pronounced is the world’s largest museum and a historic monument in Paris, France. A central landmark of the city, it is located on the Right Bank of the Seine in the city’s 1st arrondissement (district or ward). Approximately 38,000 objects from prehistory to the 21st century are exhibited over an area of 72,735 square metres (782,910 square feet). The Louvre is the world’s third most visited museum, receiving 7.3 million visitors in 2016.
The museum is housed in the Louvre Palace, originally built as a fortress in the late 12th century under Philip II. Remnants of the fortress are visible in the basement of the museum. Due to the urban expansion of the city, the fortress eventually lost its defensive function and, in 1546, was converted by Francis I into the main residence of the French Kings. The building was extended many times to form the present Louvre Palace. In 1682, Louis XIV chose the Palace of Versailles for his household, leaving the Louvre primarily as a place to display the royal collection, including, from 1692, a collection of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. In 1692, the building was occupied by the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres and the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, which in 1699 held the first of a series of salons. The Académie remained at the Louvre for 100 years. During the French Revolution, the National Assembly decreed that the Louvre should be used as a museum to display the nation’s masterpieces.
The museum opened on 10 August 1793 with an exhibition of 537 paintings, the majority of the works being royal and confiscated church property. Because of structural problems with the building, the museum was closed in 1796 until 1801. The collection was increased under Napoleon and the museum renamed Musée Napoléon, but after Napoleon’s abdication many works seized by his armies were returned to their original owners. The collection was further increased during the reigns of Louis XVIII and Charles X, and during the Second French Empire the museum gained 20,000 pieces. Holdings have grown steadily through donations and bequests since the Third Republic. The collection is divided among eight curatorial departments: Egyptian Antiquities; Near Eastern Antiquities; Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities; Islamic Art; Sculpture; Decorative Arts; Paintings; Prints and Drawings.
Medieval, Renaissance, and Bourbon palace
The Louvre Palace, which houses the museum, was begun as a fortress by Philip II in the 12th century to protect the city from possible Viking attacks, with remnants of this building still visible in the crypt. Whether this was the first building on that spot is not known; it is possible that Philip modified an existing tower. According to the authoritative Grand Larousse encyclopédique, the name derives from an association with wolf hunting den (via Latin: lupus, lower Empire: lupara). In the 7th century, St. Fare, an abbess in Meaux, left part of her “Villa called Luvra situated in the region of Paris” to a monastery. this territory probably did not correspond exactly to the modern site, however.
The Louvre Palace was altered frequently throughout the Middle Ages. In the 14th century, Charles V converted the building into a residence and in 1546, Francis I renovated the site in French Renaissance style. Francis acquired what would become the nucleus of the Louvre’s holdings, his acquisitions including Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. After Louis XIV chose Versailles as his residence in 1682, constructions slowed; however, the move permitted the Louvre to be used as a residence for artists.
By the mid-18th century there were an increasing number of proposals to create a public gallery, with the art critic La Font de Saint-Yenne publishing, in 1747, a call for a display of the royal collection. On 14 October 1750, Louis XV agreed and sanctioned a display of 96 pieces from the royal collection, mounted in the Galerie royale de peinture of the Luxembourg Palace. A hall was opened by Le Normant de Tournehem and the Marquis de Marigny for public viewing of the Tableaux du Roy on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and contained Andrea del Sarto’s Charity and works by Raphael; Titian; Veronese; Rembrandt; Poussin or Van Dyck, until its closing in 1780 as a result of the gift of the palace to the Count of Provence (the future king, Louis XVIII) by the king in 1778. Under Louis XVI, the royal museum idea became policy. The comte d’Angiviller broadened the collection and in 1776 proposed conversion of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre – which contained maps – into the “French Museum”. Many proposals were offered for the Louvre’s renovation into a museum; however, none was agreed on. Hence the museum remained incomplete until the French Revolution.
During the French Revolution the Louvre was transformed into a public museum. In May 1791, the Assembly declared that the Louvre would be “a place for bringing together monuments of all the sciences and arts”. On 10 August 1792, Louis XVI was imprisoned and the royal collection in the Louvre became national property. Because of fear of vandalism or theft, on 19 August, the National Assembly pronounced the museum’s preparation as urgent. In October, a committee to “preserve the national memory” began assembling the collection for display
The museum opened on 10 August 1793, the first anniversary of the monarchy’s demise. The public was given free access on three days per week, which was “perceived as a major accomplishment and was generally appreciated”. The collection showcased 537 paintings and 184 objects of art. Three quarters were derived from the royal collections, the remainder from confiscated émigrés and Church property (biens nationaux). To expand and organize the collection, the Republic dedicated 100,000 livres per year. In 1794, France’s revolutionary armies began bringing pieces from Northern Europe, augmented after the Treaty of Tolentino (1797) by works from the Vatican, such as Laocoön and His Sons and the Apollo Belvedere, to establish the Louvre as a museum and as a “sign of popular sovereignty”.
The early days were hectic; privileged artists continued to live in residence, and the unlabelled paintings hung “frame to frame from floor to ceiling”. The structure itself closed in May 1796 due to structural deficiencies. It reopened on 14 July 1801, arranged chronologically and with new lighting and columns.
Under Napoleon I, a northern wing paralleling the Grande Galerie was begun, and the collection grew through successful military campaigns. Following the Egyptian campaign of 1798–1801, Napoléon appointed the museum’s first director, Dominique Vivant Denon. In tribute, the museum was renamed the “Musée Napoléon” in 1803, and acquisitions were made of Spanish, Austrian, Dutch, and Italian works, either as spoils or through treaties such as the Treaty of Tolentino. At the end of Napoleon’s First Italian Campaign in 1797, the Treaty of Campo Formio was signed with Count Philipp von Cobenzl of the Austrian Monarchy. This treaty not only marked the completion of Napoleon’s conquest of Italy, but also the end of the first phases of the French Revolutionary Wars. Under this treaty, Italian cities were required to contribute pieces of art and patrimony to take part in Napoleon’s “parades of booty” through Paris before being put into the Louvre Museum. One of the most famous pieces taken under this program was the Horses of Saint Mark. The four antique bronze horses, which had adorned the basilica of San Marco in Venice after the sack of Constantinople in 1204, were brought to Paris to reside atop Napoleon’s Arc du Carrousel in Paris in 1797.
Several churches and palaces, including Saint Mark’s Basilica, were looted by the French, which outraged the Italians and their artistic and cultural sensibilities. In 1797, the Treaty of Tolentino was signed by Napoleon, and two statues, the Nile and Tiber, were taken to Paris. These statues had previously been in the Vatican, and both were housed in the Louvre until 1815. After the defeat of Napoleon, the Nile was returned to Italy. However, the Tiber remained in the Louvre Museum and can be seen in the collections today.
The Italian Peninsula was not the only region from which Napoleon took art. Under the Directory government of the 1790s, Napoleon (then a General) led an expedition to Egypt. The campaign was an expansionist effort on the part of the government, but the Directory had another goal to make Paris the center of art, science, and culture. The Directory wanted France to assume responsibility for liberating the works of art they deemed in danger in order to protect and nationalize the heritage and culture of their subjects. As a result, there were teams of artists and scientists who accompanied the armies into battle equipped with lists of paintings, sculptures, and other pieces of patrimony that would be collected, crated, and shipped back to France
Dominique Vivant Denon was Napoleon’s art advisor, and accompanied him on the expedition to Egypt. Through his initiative, the Valley of the Kings in Egypt was discovered and studied extensively. As a result, he was later installed by Napoleon as the director of Musée Napoléon, formerly the Louvre, cementing the status of the museum as a center for global patrimony and storehouse for cultural heritage.
One of the most important discoveries made during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt was the Rosetta Stone. It was discovered in 1799, and eventually led to the ability to decipher ancient hieroglyphs. Although the Rosetta Stone was discovered by the French, it actually never made it to the Louvre Museum. It was seized by British Forces following the defeat of Napoleon in Egypt and the subsequent signing of the Treaty of Alexandria in 1801. It is now on display at the British Museum.
After the French defeat at Waterloo, the works’ former owners sought their return. The Louvre’s administrators were loath to comply and hid many works in their private collections. In response, foreign states sent emissaries to London to seek help, and many pieces were returned, even some that had been restored by the Louvre. In 1815 Louis XVIII finally concluded agreements with the Austrian government for the keeping of pieces such as Veronese’s Wedding at Cana which was exchanged for a large Le Brun or the repurchase of the Albani collection.
Edited by Ariasun editorial board
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