• The Louvre was originally a fortress, built to protect Paris from a possible English invasion while King Philippe Auguste was crusading in the Holy Land. /AFP
  • The remains of a medieval city wall, left, and castle wall, right, line an empty moat on the lower level of the museum’s Sully Wing.
  • A scale model of the Louvre as it appeared during the reign of Philippe August appears in a digital display in the Pavillon de l’Horloge.
  • The Venus de Milo resides in the Sully Wing

The Louvre’s many lives

lifestyle April 15, 2018 01:00

By Darunee Khamsook
Special to The Sunday Nation

4,293 Viewed

Originally a fortress, then a fortified palace, the Paris museum is a fittingly secure repository for priceless art

THAT MOST venerable of art museums, the Louvre in Paris, had 8.1 million visitors last year. Given the turmoil surrounding just two of its exhibits, though, one has to wonder how many of those visitors were interested in anything other than “Mona Lisa” and “Venus de Milo”.

A lot of them do indeed ask museum officials where they can find the glorious statues of Canova and the Napoleon III apartments, but topping those queries on the list of most frequently asked questions are “Where is the Mona Lisa?” and “Is the Venus de Milo in this room?” 

Always the main draw at the Louvre, Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” in the Denon Wing is never lonely.

Any requests for directions are understandable – the Louvre is a massive place – and to save time searching, everyone who wants to see the most famous Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” is constantly surrounded. Gawkers push in, trying to glimpse her mysterious smile. Meanwhile they’re ignoring such magnificent displays as the Pavillon de l’Horloge (the Clock Pavilion) in the Sully Wing. 

That’s a shame, because it’s really the perfect place to begin a visit to the Louvre. It tells the story, after all, of how the museum arose from a palace that was originally a medieval fortress.

The remains of a medieval city wall, left, and castle wall, right, line an empty moat on the lower level of the museum’s Sully Wing.

In about 1190, Philippe Auguste, then king of France, departed for the Middle East on the Third Crusade. Fretting that the English might invade Paris in his absence, he ordered the construction of a wall ringing the city to protect his treasures and his archives within a nearly square compound surrounded by a moat that was fed by the waters of the Seine. 

There were four corner towers and, in the middle, La Grosse Tour (the cylindrical Big Tower), the central keep that became the Louvre. The fortress had two gates – the main one to the south overlooking the Seine and a smaller one facing east.

In the Pavillon de l’Horloge, visitors can view a virtual map and vestiges of the old structure that have been preserved. They are in fact walking above the old moat. To their left is the city wall, to the right the castle wall. 

Le Donjon du Louvre (Louvre Keep) evokes medieval times.

A wooden path circles the cylindrical vestige on the right, the Louvre Keep, symbolising monarchical power. The wall soared 31 metres and was more than four metres thick at the base. What remains today are a portion of the foundation, resembling a buttress, and Le Grande Vis, a spiral staircase.

Charles V, who reigned from 1364 to 1380, turned the defensive edifice into a luxurious royal residence, building a new enclosure and bringing more light into the interior by adding many windows. 

Turrets, statuary and gardens helped make the palace a more habitable place than it had been. The central keep was lit with eight huge windows on each floor. Gone was the defensive intention of the fortress, but the palace was still safe and secure. 

La Salle SaintLouis (the SaintLouis Room) has lasted into the present day.

To complete the picture of the Louvre as it was in the Middle Ages, visit la Salle Saint-Louis (the Saint-Louis Room), which contains hundreds of artefacts and more glimpses of the original structure.

Louis IX (1226-1270) had this room covered with a ribbed vault, gone today apart from supportive pilasters and the beginning of the arch that framed the vault.

While the carvings and crowns of the stone arches have been lost, you can still see vegetable patterns adorning the capitals of the pilasters and wry faces around the bases. 

The current exhibition in the Saint-Louis Room is “Les Vies du Louvre: Du palais au mus?e” (“The Lives of the Louvre: From Palace to Museum)”. It’s explained – through artefacts including items of daily use such as jewellery, fine apparel, musical instruments and children’s playthings – that the building’s other “lives” were spent as a prison, a royal treasury and a studio for artists toiling for the court.

A scale model of the Louvre as it appeared during the reign of Philippe August appears in a digital display in the Pavillon de l’Horloge.

All of this yielded to its present incarnation as a museum in the wake of the French Revolution. Visitors later should go back to their track in an exhibition room. Accompanying the virtual Louvre display are exhibits about the architecture. A vast glass box occupying half the room contains an intricately detailed scale model of the Louvre and the adjacent Tuileries, Paris’ most famous gardens. 

Around this huge box are decorated facades and layouts of the Louvre as seen during the Renaissance and tracing 800 years of its architectural evolution. As a narrator tells the tale, moving from section to section, each wing is illuminated in turn.

Beginning in 1564, Queen Catherine de’ Medici, widow of Henry II, had the south wing refurbished as her residence and pressed construction of the Tuileries Palace, which Henry had initiated, with a vast garden.

The Napoleon III Apartments are in the Richelieu Wing.

Henry IV envisioned a Grand Dessein (Great Design), combining the Tuileries Palace and Louvre in one complex. Napoleon III finally got it finished, only for a fire in 1871 to burn the Tuileries to the ground.

While serving as a royal residence, the palace that became the Louvre was the scene of unending work. It was a of celebration and a symbol of royal power. When Louis XIV chose instead to live chiefly at Versailles after 1682, the Louvre’s rooms, galleries and apartments were turned over to the burgeoning arts community. Academies held their salons there, the annual grand exhibitions where careers were born and ruined.

Capitalising on renovations to the welcoming areas under the Pyramid, the Pavillon de l’Horloge introduces visitors to the Louvre, sparking interest in fresh routes through the museum. /AFP

The revolutionary government announced the establishment of le Museum central des Arts de la Republique on August 10, 1793, but it wasn’t until 1848 that the appellation Le Musee du Louvre first appeared. A royal preserve now open to the public, it charged no admission. The art on view, largely seized from aristocrats, were divided into three “departments” – paintings, ancient sculptures and drawings.

The Louvre and its three wings – Richelieu, Sully and Denon – took on its modern form in 1981, at the urging of then-president Francois Mitterrand. The large glass-and-metal pyramid outside the main entrance was unveiled on March 30, 1989. Go there first and place yourself squarely in the midst of history.


The Louvre is open daily except Tuesday from 9am to 6pm (on Wednesdays and Fridays until 9.45pm).

Visitors can download the mobile application “My Visit to the Louvre” for free.

Plan your visit at www.Louvre.fr/en.