By Chet Yarbrough
The Louvre (The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum)
By: James Gardner
Narrated by: Graham Halstead
James Gardner (Author, art and literary critic.)
James Gardner is an art and literary critic based in New York and Buenos Aires. His writing has appeared in publications including the “New York Times”, the “Wall Street Journal”, and the “New Republic”.
Having visited the Louvre a few years ago, it seems worth listening to James Gardner’s book about one of the world’s greatest museums. It is a surprise to find the Louvre dates to the 12th century. It began as a walled fort to protect Paris but was expanded when King Philippe Auguste decided to build a castle at the wall next to the Seine River.
The Louvre was originally planned as a fortress to protect Paris.
The origin of the name Louvre is a mystery. Gardner notes some thought it came from an association with a wolf hunting den; others thought it came from a Saxon word for watchtower (lauer) but no one knows for sure. The Louvre was neglected for several years after Louis XIV moved to Versailles. Some work was done, but King Louis’s architect spent most of his time on the new Versailles residence.
Gardner explains the remains of King Auguste’s castle foundation can still be seen today.
The Louvre became the home of King Francois I in 1528.
In 1550, the sculptor Jean Goujon created the caryatids (sculpted female figures as column supports) inside Francois I’s Louvre Palace.
The Louvre remained a royal residence until 1682 when Louis XIV moved to Versailles.
Gardner notes, it is after the French Revolution that the Louvre becomes classified as a museum.
The National Assembly of the nascent government republic opened the eight-acre site as a museum in 1793 with a collection of 537 paintings. Most of these paintings were from royal residences or church-property’ confiscations. Famous paintings like the Mona Lisa were not exhibited until 1797, just as Napoleon rises to power.
It is not until Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1799 coup d’état that a serious renovation of the Louvre is undertaken.
Bonaparte makes the Louvre his royal residence in Paris. Vivant Denon became the first director of the Louvre. He was a diplomat under the bourbon kings, Louis XV and Louis XVI, and then appointed director of the Louvre by Napoleon after his Egyptian campaign (1798-1801). Denon had been with Napoleon in Egypt. Denon was displaced during the Bourbon Restoration because of his association with Napoleon. Not much was done on the Louvre during the Bourbon Restoration.
Vivant Denon (1747-1825. artist, writer, diplomat, author, and archaeologist.)
Napoleon III (1852-1870 reign, first president of France, became last emperor of France–deposed in exile. Nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.)
Napoleon III undertakes a grand renovation of the Louvre with the building of its two major wings. The “Pavilion Denon” is dedicated at the Louvre by Napoleon III in the 1850s. Napoleon III employs Louis Visconti to design the Louvre renovation but he dies in 1853. The Visconti plan is executed by Hector Lefuel. It connects the old Louvre Palace around the Cour Carree with the Tuileries Palace to the west. The two major wings and their galleries and pavilions are completed during Napoleon III’s reign.
Francois Mitterrand (President of France 1981-1995)
WWII may have been the death nell of the Louve if it had not been for the cleverness of the French and the tacit cooperation of a German officer. The final chapters address today’s view of the Louvre and the renovations made by French President, Francois Mitterrand. Mitterrand carries the torch of French freedom and appreciation of art in the most elaborate Louvre addition since Napoleon III’s grand renovation. Mitterrand hires I.M. Pei to design the Louvre addition.
I.M. Pei (1917-2019, world renown American architect.)
It is known as the Grand Louvre Modernization project which is most noticeable because of the glass pyramid that becomes the primary Louvre entry. The pyramid seems incongruous to this tourist but is reminiscent of the Napoleonic history of France. Napoleon is more than a conqueror of countries. His political ambition entails more than power, though power is certainly a large part of his hegemonic ambition.
Gardner notes Napoleon’s inspired interest in other nation’s traditions, history, and art. His ambition in Egypt entails a consuming passion for understanding its historic rise to power and hegemonic power’s correlation with prominence in the world.
I.M. Pei’s decision is to create a symbol of the power and permanence of Egypt with a pyramid. The Louvre’s entrance is representative of Egyptian and French ambition in the world. As history shows, Egypt and France were hegemons of the world at different times.
Gardner’s book, “The Louvre”, should be on every tourist’s list before visiting the center of Paris. Gardner shows how much there is to see and how little one will understand without spending more than a day, let alone a few hours, at the Louvre.