The Louvre Museum started on the current site as a medieval fortress. In 1190, King Philip II (the first person to be officially known as the King of France), began construction of a arsenal near what was then the western border of Paris, along the banks of the River Seine. It was originally designed as a fortress to protect the French from Viking raiders, who could navigate up the River Seine.
Designed to prevent invasions, the fortifications included bastions at each corner, a surrounding moat and a massive tall fortified tower at its center. Two centuries later, Paris had spread beyond this location and a new series of defensive structures were constructed at the further outskirts of Paris. The fortress ceased to be used for defensive purposes and the remains of part of the medieval masonry are on display and can be visited.
In the 14th century, King Charles V modified the original design, but war delayed more extensive plans and the Louvre fell into disuse until 1527. Then King Francis I ordered the demolishment of the original structure in favor of a lavish new Renaissance building. The projects Francis commissioned started a century of expansions, including new wings and buildings designed by the leading architects of the day. Each successive monarch made their own contributions to the building by adding and extending to the Louvre’s grounds and grandeur. All these construction projects eventually connected by a series of galleries and pavilions give the Louvre its unifying facade.
After 1682, when the Sun King, Louis XIV moved the royal court from Paris to the Palace of Versailles, the Louvre was left with unfinished building works and was abandoned to disrepair. The buildings that remained open eventually hosted of painters, sculptors and writers as residents. It became a home for artists. Some of the Bourbon kings sponsored with funds the development of site plus artistic endeavours until 1789 and the start of the French Revolution.
With the fall of the monarchy, the royal family was imprisoned in the neighboring Tuileries Palace and then executed by guillotine. The newly created National Assembly decreed the Louvre as a national museum open to the public. The Louvre Museum, opened in 1793, with an exhibit of more than 500 paintings and decorative arts, many of which were confiscated from the French nobility.
Napoleon and the French army seized significant pieces of art and archaeological items from nations conquered in the Napoleonic wars. Most of this plundered European art was returned after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. However the Egyptian antiquities collections remained and other departments owe much to Napoleon’s conquests. New wings were added in the 19th century and the multi-building Louvre complex was completed in 1857.
In 1911 with the theft of the Mona Lisa, the museum received significant publicity as did the Mona Lisa. This incident and many others in the 20th century helped raise the profile of the Louvre Museum into a museum of global significance not just a French institution.
With the coming of World War II, Louvre conservators quickly evacuated thousands of pieces of art. Trucks headed into the French countryside, hiding priceless works across a series of private chateaus. After the German occupation of Paris, Nazi officials ordered the Louvre to reopen. With limited artworks to display, the Nazis decided to use part of the Louvre as a clearinghouse to catalogue and ship art and personal items confiscated from wealthy French (primarily Jewish) families back to Germany.
Thanks to a brave curator who served as a double agent during this period, many of the pieces that passed through the Louvre were eventually recovered. Many art pieces that passed through the Louvre at this period are still controversially missing.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Louvre underwent major remodeling to modernise the museum. Significant visitor amenities were added and thousands of square meters of new exhibition space was made available. The Chinese American architect I.M. Pei designed the steel-and-glass pyramid in the center of the Louvre courtyard.
The glass pyramid entrance was highly controversial at the time, however today it is synonymous with the Louvre. In 1993, the French ministry of finance, the final government department vacated the Louvre and new capacity was made available for the museum. This was the first time that the entire Louvre was dedicated as a Museum.
“History is a set of lies agreed upon.” Napoléon Bonaparte
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