The Louvre, in its successive architectural metamorphoses, has dominated central Paris since the late 12th century. Built on the city’s western edge, the original structure was gradually engulfed as the city grew. The dark fortress of the early days was transformed into the modernized dwelling of François I and, later, the sumptuous palace of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Here we explore the history of this extraordinary edifice and of the museum that has occupied it since 1793.
During the forty-three-year reign of Philippe Auguste (1180–1223), the power and influence of the French monarchy grew considerably, both inside and outside the kingdom. In 1190, a rampart was built around Paris, which was Europe’s biggest city at the time. To protect the capital from the Anglo-Norman threat, the king decided to reinforce its defenses with a fortress, which came to be known as the Louvre. It was built to the west of the city, on the banks of the Seine.
In the mid-14th century, Paris spread far beyond Philippe Auguste’s original wall. With the onset of the Hundred Years’ War, further defenses were needed for the French capital. Etienne Marcel, provost of the merchants of Paris, instigated the construction of an earth rampart (1356–58), which was continued and developed under Charles V. The new defenses encompassed the neighborhoods on the right bank of the Seine. Enclosed within the expanding city, the Louvre lost its defensive function.
After the death of Charles VI, the Louvre slumbered for a century until 1527, when François I decided to take up residence in Paris. The Grosse Tour (the medieval keep) was demolished, affording still more light and space. The medieval Louvre gave way to a Renaissance palace.
The demolition of the Grosse Tour marked the beginning of a new phase of building work that would continue through to the reign of Louis XIV. The transformation of François I’s château continued under Henri II and his sons. However, the construction of the Tuileries palace some 500 meters to the west led to a rethinking of the site. Ambitious royal plans to link the two buildings culminated in the creation of the Grande Galerie.
The reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV had a major impact on the Louvre and Tuileries palaces. The extension of the west wing of the Cour Carrée under Louis XIII marked the beginning of an ambitious program of work that would be completed by Louis XIV and added to by Louis XV, resulting in the Louvre that we see today. However, following the completion of Versailles, royal interest in the palace waned, plunging the Louvre into a new period of dormancy.
Between 1655 and 1658, Anne of Austria, the queen mother and regent during Louis XIV’s childhood, created a suite of private apartments on the ground floor of the Petite Galerie. The six interconnecting rooms (a common arrangement at the time) comprised a large salon, anteroom, and vestibule, a grand cabinet (study or private sitting room), a bedchamber, and a petit cabinet overlooking the Seine. The decoration was carried out by the Italian Romanelli (frescoes and ceilings) and Anguier (stucco).
In 1660 Louis Le Vau was appointed to oversee the completion of the Louvre. This entailed a new facade for the Petite Galerie, the completion of the north wing of the Cour Carrée, and, between 1661 and 1663, the extension of the south wing, including two new pavilions—one at the eastern end, symmetrical to theRenaissance Pavillon du Roi, and one in the center. In 1668, Le Vau doubled the width of the palace and constructed a new facade overlooking the Seine. The last vestiges of the medieval Louvre were demolished.
On February 6, 1661, fire ravaged the upper story of the Petite Galerie. While Le Vau oversaw the reconstruction work, the Sun King, Louis XIV, commissioned Charles Le Brun to execute decorative paintings evoking the passage of the sun represented by the Roman sun god Apollo. The decoration was left unfinished, but includes three ceiling panels by Le Brun (begun in 1663) and a number of large-scale stucco sculptures.
In 1756, Louis XV ordered the resumption of construction work at the Louvre. The wings begun under Louis XIV were partially completed, and the north, east, and south sides of the Cour Carrée were finally roofed. At the same time, the monumentality of Perrault’s Colonnade could at last be properly appreciated thanks to the demolition of buildings at its foot. A complex of ancillary buildings in the Cour Carrée was also razed.
With the Revolution, the Louvre entered a phase of intensive transformation. For three years, Louis XVI lived in the Tuileries palace, alongside the Convention Nationale. In 1793 the Museum Central des Arts opened to the public in the Grande Galerie and the Salon Carré, from where the collections gradually spread to take over the building. Anne of Austria’s apartments housed the antique sculpture galleries, and further rooms and exhibition spaces were opened under Charles X.
In 1806, Percier and Fontaine built a small triumphal arch aligned with the Pavillon de l’Horloge and the central pavilion of the Tuileries. Inaugurated in 1808, it was decorated with reliefs and statues by Denon celebrating French military victories. On the top, Denon installed the four celebrated antique bronze horses from the facade of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The horses were returned to Venice in 1815.
Napoleon III commissioned Visconti and (following his death) Lefuel to finish the north wing linking the Louvre and the Tuileries. Central to the design was the completion of new buildings along the rue de Rivoli, extending the existing wings built under Napoleon I and Louis XVIII, and the building of two new ings with inner courtyards. The Cour Napoléon, at the heart of this complex, was finished in 1857. The interior decoration was completed in 1861.
In 1926, France’s director of national museums, Henri Verne, launched an ambitious plan to extend the exhibition space at the Louvre. Work began in 1930 and continued during and after World War II. The Cour du Sphinx was given a glazed roof for the display of antique sculpture, while new rooms of European sculpture in the Flore wing, and of objets d’art and paintings in the Cour Carrée were opened. The galleries of Egyptian and Near Eastern antiquities were completely refurbished.
The need to improve the museum’s displays and provide better amenities for visitors became increasingly pressing. On September 26, 1981, President François Mitterrand announced a plan to restore the Louvre palace in its entirety to its function as a museum. The Finance Ministry, which still occupied the Richelieu wing, was transferred to new premises, and the Grand Louvre project, which would entail a complete reorganization of the museum, was launched.
The glass Pyramid built by I. M. Pei was inaugurated on March 30, 1989. Rising from the center of the Cour Napoléon, it is the focal point of the museum’s main axes of circulation and also serves as an entrance to the large reception hall beneath. From here, visitors can also reach the temporary exhibition areas, displays on the history of the palace and museum, Charles V’s original moat, an auditorium, and public amenities (coat check, bookshop, cafeteria, restaurant).