History of the Louvre
From château to museum
A visit to the Louvre and its collections lets visitors discover Western art from the Middle Ages to 1848, as well as a large number of ancient civilizations. Yet it also offers another history to explore. 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.
Before the Louvre
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 etymology of the word “Louvre” remains a mystery today: some have tried to see in it a leper colony, a place haunted by wolves, or a reference to the château’s grandiose nature through a play on the words “Louvre” and “L’œuvre,” the French for artwork. In fact, the word undoubtedly dates back to the time when the site was still a sparsely populated country environment; the suffix “-ara”—as in its Latin form “Lupara”—suggests a Celtic origin. Though its meaning remains a mystery, “Louvre” is definitely a place name, attested elsewhere in the Ile-de-France region, as in the village of “Louvres en Parisis.”
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