In Paris, France Louvre is the site of the world’s largest and most diverse collection of pre-20th century painting, sculpture, and decorative objects, The Louvre is generally considered Paris’ most important museum. Not forgetting the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, bask in the works of Vermeer, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and countless others. The palace itself is testament to a rich history spanning from the medieval period to the present. The adjacent Tuileries gardens are perfect for a stroll pre-or post-visit.
The grand palace that houses the museum, which dates back to the late twelfth century, is a true lesson in architecture: from 1200 to 2011, the most innovative architects have in turn built and developed the Louvre. Long the seat of power, this royal residence was also home to French heads of state until 1870 and is one of the major backdrops to the history of Paris and of France.
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. 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 the Musée Napoléon. After the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, 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 gifts since the Third Republic. As of 2008, 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.
Historians have long debated the origins of the Louvre but archeological excavations conducted at the time of the Grand Louvre project in the 1980s have helped give a clearer picture. A number of carved flints, found in the gravel of the river Seine, date back to Mesolithic times (8000-6550 BC), but they may have been carried by the water and therefore do not provide reliable evidence of human presence at this location.
However, silo pits, ceramics, and small stone furniture items, which may be linked to what is known as the “Cerny culture” (attested in the Paris Basin between 4500 and 4200 BC), are proof that nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers gradually colonized the banks of the Seine. At the end of the Bronze Age (between 1250 and 750 BC), the site of the Louvre was still a rural area that men were starting to develop through land clearing and the establishment of farms. This activity continued during the Gallo-Roman period when it coexisted with intensive clay mining, for use in the construction of the nearby city.
The history of the Louvre begins around 1190 with Philippe Auguste’s decision to erect a fortified enclosure to protect Paris. This was an important gesture in favor of urbanism and a display of the king’s authority just as he was preparing to leave the country to go to war in the Crusades. To defend one of the weak spots in this fortification, namely its junction with the Seine, a castle was needed: as such, the Louvre was born.
The building designed by Philippe Auguste’s engineers was square in plan, protected by a moat, and equipped with circular defensive towers at its corners and in the middle of its sides. In the center of its courtyard stood a main tower with its own moat. This model was used on several occasions with some variations; the Château de Dourdan in Ile-de-France still offers a well-preserved example.
The Louvre is known today for its astoundingly large collection of painting, sculpture, drawings and other cultural artifacts, but before it became the globe’s arts mammoth, it was a royal palace and a crucial part of the fortifications that protected early medieval Paris from invaders.
The Louvre is currently drawing averages of over 8 million visitors per year– making it self-evident why avoiding peak times is necessary is you want to experience the collections in more than a superficial way. The Louvre’s collections are head-spinningly rich and complex. Rather than fend for yourself, booking a guided tour can be a good choice, particularly on a first visit.