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History of the Louvre Museum, Paris

Aerial view of the Louvre, Paris

The Louvre is the world’s most famous and largest fine arts museum. It’s home to the one of the most impressive art collections in history. It’s also the most visited museum of the world with a stonking 10 million visitors a year – but it wasn’t always this way. Once it was only for royalty and aristocrats. The history of the Louvre museum is fascinating…

The origins of the Louvre

Statue of a woman looking at the Louvre Museum in ParisThe Louvre was originally built as a fortress in the late 12th century. By the 14th century it had become more of a residence for the French royal family. In the 16th century, Francis I, known as the French Renaissance King, had major works carried out to turn it into a Renaissance palace. Every time a new monarch was appointed, there was expansion and change until the Louvre reached a monumental size. Today, it covers a total area of 652,300 square feet (60,600 square metres).

In 1682, Louis XIV moved the Royal residence to Versailles, 17km from Paris. He wanted to distance himself from the Paris populace and exert more control over his court. After that the royal family lost interest in the Louvre. It was left to fall into disrepair though some parts of the monumental building were taken over by cultural groups including artists and writers.

The Louvre was once called the Napoleon Museum

Following the French Revolution, the National Assembly ruling body opened the Louvre as a museum in August 1793 with a collection of 537 paintings. When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power he had the Louvre renamed “Musée Napoleon” and vastly expanded the collection, adding art from his military campaigns, private donations and commissions.

In 1814, when Napoleon’s rule came to end, almost 5,000 artworks were returned to their countries of origin. The Louvre reverted to its original name.

What to see at the Louvre

View of the Louvre from inside the Pyramid, Louvre

The world’s most visited fine arts museum was once a fortress.  The history of the Louvre Museum is fascinating. So enormous is the Louvre, that it would take three months to view every piece of art contained in it. And that’s if you spent just 30 seconds looking at each artwork all day, every day without a break. There are more than 7,500 paintings and the displays cover nearly 15 acres, and are divided across eight quite separate departments…

Row of figurines of Venus de Milo in the Louvre shop window

Artworks range from the 600 BC to the 19th century and range from Egyptian antiques to Old Masters. Thousands visit to see the armless beauty of the Venus de Milo, and Winged Victory, an ancient Greek sculpture. Other popular works include a stele inscribed with the Code of Hammurabi, da Vinci’s tragic sculpture The Dying Slave and Antonio Canova’s 18th-century sculpture Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss. Eugene Delacroix’s, Liberty Leading the People, which depicts a bare-breasted Liberty goddess leading a charge in the French Revolution, thought to have inspired Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, is popular with French visitors.

The Mona Lisa at the Louvre

Without question, the Louvre’s most famous work is Leonardo da Vinci’s, Mona Lisa. She enchants hordes of visitors with her enigmatic smile, creating very long queues. This iconic painting is much smaller than people realise. It’s just 21 by 30 inches, covered with bullet-proof glass and flanked by guards. This protection is the result of the painting being stolen in 1911 but was thankfully recovered in 1913.

The Louvre’s pyramid

Introverted pyramid at the Louvre shopping centre Paris

In 1983, the Louvre underwent a renovation plan known as the Grand Louvre. Part of the plan was to create a new main entrance and Architect I.M. Pei was awarded the project. The modern glass pyramid and underground lobby he designed was inaugurated in 1988 followed by the Inverted Pyramid, a skylight dipping into the underground lobby in 1993. The pyramid wasn’t always popular. As with the Eiffel Tower, there wasn’t universal approval. There was even a rumour started that the pyramid has 666 panes of glass, the sign of the devil clearly. It’s not true – there are 673!

Take a break

Bronze statue of a sitting woman, arms folded, head bent, Tuileries Garden, Paris

Head to Le Café Marly which is in the Richelieu wing of the Louvre. It’s not cheap but the food is good, the cocktails are delicious and it does offer wonderful views over the courtyard of the Louvre and the Pyramid. Great for people watching from the arcades.

Wander in the Tuileries gardens, between the Louvre and the Champs Elysées. It’s one of the biggest outdoor museums in France. Run by the Louvre it contains artworks from the 17th to 20th century. It’s also great for relaxing, people watching and

Finally, if you visit the Louvre, book your tickets in advance to avoid long queues. And, if you’re a night owl, visit on Wednesday and Friday when the museum closes at 9.45pm. There are less crowds then, which is great if you’re keen to see the Mona Lisa.

Virtual visit to the Louvre

The Louvre collection is now visible on line – in its entirety. Almost half a million pieces of art ranging from paintings and sculptures to textiles and furnishings are being made viewable. And you can also take a virtual visit to the museum through an interactive map – it’s a little clunky but if you crave a Louvre fix you can get it at the Louvre Collections map. The histories of the pieces is fascinating. In the jewellery section for instance the history of the famous Regent Diamond includes details of who owned it and how Napoleon had it embedded in his sword.

Louvre website in English: www.louvre.fr/en/homepage

More Paris Museums

Musée d’Orsay is just across the road from the Louvre
Yves Saint Laurent Museum
Fragonard Perfume Museum
Espace Dalí museum-gallery 
Picasso Museum
Cluny Museum

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