In honor of architect IM Pei’s 100th birthday, we delve into the history of the Louvre: a cultural hub that predates it by some 700 years, but owes much of its current dynamism to its renovations in the 1980s .
But first, let’s go back in time. The museum dates back to the 12th century, when it was built as a fortress – a fact few would first associate with the eventual home of the Mona Lisa.
Its halls once housed a strange royal ritual:
Before the Louvre was a museum, it was a royal residence, housing several generations of kings. King Henry IV was among them and he decreed a royal ritual known as the Royal Touch in the halls of the Louvre.
The French royal family at the time was believed to have divine power to rule. Such a benefit of divine support? The ability to cure illnesses, such as swollen lymph nodes, a side effect of tuberculosis, with just a touch. This is how Henri IV received tuberculosis patients in one of the rooms of the Louvre, anointing the sick with holy water while singing “Le roy te touche, dieu te guerit” (“The king touches you, God heals you”).
He pioneered the concept of public art:
Today’s Parisian artists, who spend hours drawing in the Louvre, can familiarly claim to live there. But in the 17th and 18th centuries, artists really lived in the Louvre.
Before Louis XIV ascended the throne, several generations of members of the royal family had made the Louvre their home. But when the Sun King chose to settle in Versailles at the end of the 17th century, it allowed artists to settle there. There they exchanged ideas, copied paintings and worked on their own projects.
The building quickly became a hub for the art world. After the French Revolution (1789-1799), the Louvre was officially converted from a palace into a public museum. At the time, allowing the public access to great works of art was a new concept, which obviously had the power of adhesion. The museum operated on the ten-day week of the French Revolution: the first six days of the week were reserved for artists, the following three offered access to the public and the last day was reserved for repairs.
Pei’s glass pyramid was meant to fit into the landscape, not fight with it:
Clearly the Louvre has a rich history and modernizing a building with such an important past is no small feat. So in 1983, when French President François Mitterrand asked Pei to revive the struggling building, the architect took some time to think about his design.
Pei kept the project a secret from his own team for four months and made several surreptitious trips to the museum before drawing up plans. When he finally put pen to paper, his plans included a new entrance, a network of rooms to make visiting the museum more enjoyable (an information center, a cafeteria) and, famously, the glass pyramid.
Parisians at the time were outraged when the design was unveiled. Pei’s pyramid was a “gigantic and ruinous gadget”, as one New York Times review wrote in 1985. The overwhelming feeling at the time was that Pei’s Pyramid was a modernist horror that stood starkly against its Baroque surroundings.