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.
The Louvre in the Middle Ages
Philippe Auguste and the founding of the Louvre
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.
Philippe Auguste’s Louvre was not a royal residence but a garrison fortress. It was not in the very heart of the city—as it is today—but on its outer limits. Its mission was to protect and perhaps also to watch over the city. The Louvre’s “Grosse Tour” or cylindrical keep also acted as a royal strongbox and a prison for important people. Ferdinand, count of Flanders and enemy of Philippe Auguste, was held there for thirteen years after being defeated at the Battle of Bouvines.
The château’s site however underwent rapid change. A dense urban district gradually grew up around it, taking away its defensive interest. In addition, the kings of France, who liked to travel between their various residences within the capital, were to find themselves staying there more and more. A large pillared hall set in the château basement and dating from the reign of Saint Louis (1226–70) can still be seen today.
Modernization under Charles V
King Charles V (reign 1364–80) endorsed the development of the Louvre from fortress to residence. He decided to build a new enclosure three hundred meters west of the Louvre and commissioned his architect Raymond du Temple with converting the fortress into an up-to-date dwelling. Windows were opened in the walls and the upper portions raised and enhanced with ornate high roofs.
The Louvre then carried a political message. Statues of the king and his wife, set above the entrance gate, greeted visitors. These statues are perhaps the ones now in the museum’s collections. In the courtyard the visitors needed to go around the keep to reach the large spiral staircase. Decorated with figures of the king’s relatives, this staircase led to the apartments. The layout of the rooms reserved for the queen and king, whose lodgings were in the north wing, followed a complex spatial arrangement. This went from the most public area (the hall) to the most private room (the withdrawing room or chambre de retrait) and was well suited to the implementation of very elaborate royal ceremonials.
Charles V also had a famous library created in the Louvre for his collection of around one thousand manuscripts. Set up in the north-west tower and extending over three levels, it reflected the intellectual ambition of a king who was known as “the Wise” and also acted as a center for the dissemination of important texts through the copying out of manuscripts, commissioned translations, and loans of books to other members of the royal family. This library was however quickly scattered as of the reign of Charles VI (1380–1422), during which the Louvre experienced the most difficult period of the Hundred Years’ War, marked in particular by the English occupation of the capital between 1420 and 1435. The ceremonial helmet of Charles VI, found broken in a well of the medieval château, is contemporaneous with this troubled time.
The medieval Louvre was largely lost during the modernization of the château called for by the Renaissance, and it was gradually razed to the ground between 1528 and 1660. During the Grand Louvre project in the 1980s, excavations revealed the foundations of the lost château. Visitors can now wander around the former moats, discover the foundations of the keep, and see the room now known as the “Salle Saint Louis.”