The louvre

The Louvre: Palimpsest Palace

Great museums serve many functions: they can study the world encyclopaedically, provide fascinating accounts of history, celebrate diverse forms of beauty, and project political power. They can also have an almost mythical presence. If myths tell of a society’s origins in the natural world, a great museum can do something similar, demonstrating how the world is shaped and ordered. It is a place where people come together again and again, united in something akin to ritual, seeking enlightenment, perhaps even seeking a sense of belonging. Museums are the temples of a people or a nation.

But I hadn’t realized how much mythical a museum could have until I read James Gardner’s eloquent eulogy to the Louvre, which traces his “many lives” from France’s prehistory to the present day. . “Before the Louvre was a museum,” begins its introduction, “it was a palace, and before that a fortress, and before that a piece of land, a bit like any other.” Its life as a museum is venerable – over 200 years – but its life as a place of significance spans 600 years before that. And in the 1980s, excavations to create the museum’s underground bus depot unearthed the skeletal remains of a man who lived in the Bronze Age, more than 4,000 years ago. Such is the microcosmic story of the world’s largest museum, with over 782,000 square feet of exhibition space and a collection of over 35,000 objects seen by more than nine million annual visitors.

The Pavillon de l’Horloge seen through IM Pei’s pyramidal entrance to the Louvre.


Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos

The Louvre

By James Gardner

Monthly Atlantic, 394 pages, $30

And although, as Mr. Gardner puts it, the Louvre “now occupies a position of radical centrality” in the heart of Paris, it once stood on its outskirts, a military outpost west of the newly-created city walls. built. In 1190, its first and only function was to serve as a defense in case the English (who then controlled the western third of what is now France) decided to use the river to reach Paris. The history of the Louvre, we are beginning to see, is inseparable from the history of Paris and the emergence of modern France. Is there any other museum with such an intimate relationship to the history of its nation?

Yet, as Mr. Gardner argues, there are many mysteries at the Louvre, including its name. One suggestion has been that it came from a supposedly Saxon word, “loevar”, which apparently meant “castle”. Another is that it evolved from the French word “louve”, for “she-wolf”, alluding to the wild world beyond the city walls. Nobody knows. And as Mr. Gardner walks us through the building’s history, the complications pile up. “Not a stone of the original structure survives above ground,” he notes, but “the ghost of the medieval edifice can be summoned” from the pillars and oculi in the museum’s Cour Carrée. , as the original square courtyard is called. In Mr. Gardner’s account, it is as if the architectural DNA is expressed in several layers of reconstruction. In this case, the connection became explicit: in 1989, the base of the medieval fortress was unveiled as an underground exhibit in the Louvre itself.

One difficulty is that there were “no less than twenty distinct building campaigns” at the Louvre over eight centuries. After its transformation into a palace by Charles V in the 14th century, the transformations become almost baroque in their complexity. Each king’s reign involved expansion or demolition, modification or neglect, transforming the building into an elaborate palimpsest of style and function.

The Grand Gallery, for example, which today displays the extraordinary Italian paintings in the museum’s collection, was built by Henry IV and largely completed when he died in 1610. It is nearly half a kilometer long and 13 meters wide and was originally designed as a link between the Louvre and the Tuileries Palace – a palace that eventually became the main Parisian residence of the monarchy but was destroyed by a fire started by communard rebels in 1871. This destruction ultimately benefited today’s Louvre by opening up a view extending west from IM Pei’s pyramidal entrance to the Louvre directly to the Arc de Triomphe.

Feasance and malfeasance have combined haphazardly over the centuries. Yet the Louvre, like a Darwinian creature, achieves imposing stature and sensuous character through this combination of accident and need. Today’s visitor can’t see much from before the 1850s, when Napoleon III remodeled and built the Louvre in its near-modern form, but Mr. Gardner allows us to see the past in the presence of the museum. .

But how did it become a museum? First, from the royal art collections, starting with Francis I, who reigned from 1515 to 1547, conquered the Duchy of Milan for a time and consolidated the influence of the Italian Renaissance on French taste. In 1516 he convinced Leonardo da Vinci to live in the royal summer residence; three years later, he died there, in the arms of the King, after a painting (perhaps apocryphal) by Ingres. Leonardo had brought 20 of his notebooks, along with three paintings – “St. John the Baptist”, “Virgin and Child with Saint Anne” and “Mona Lisa”. They eventually became part of the Louvre collection (although that at some point Napoleon’s wife Josephine slept with the “Mona Lisa” at her bedside).

Another aspect of the palace’s transformation into a museum took place a century later, when Henry IV invited painters, sculptors and craftsmen to live and work on the ground floor of the Grand Gallery – hoping to have a beneficial effect, as he declared in 1608, on crafts “throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom”. This tradition lasted for two centuries, until it was suppressed by Napoleon, but it effectively freed artists from medieval guilds and hierarchies of training and obligation, and associated their activity with civic virtue. But it wasn’t until 1793, amid the Terror of the Revolution, that part of the Louvre became a public museum.

This story is told with all the verve, insight and attention to detail for which Mr. Gardner’s critics are renowned. And this allows us to see the remarkable singularity of the Louvre as a museum that was neither founded by a sovereign to celebrate his glory, nor founded by a state to reflect his vision of the Enlightenment, nor created at the height of national power. to reflect the reach of an empire. The Louvre is an institution that slowly evolved over the centuries so that the creation and dissemination of art eventually became inseparable from the many and diverse incarnations of the state.

Mr. Gardner’s passion also invites us to share his affection and schedule a visit. “The Colonnade,” he says of the Louvre’s too little-seen eastern facade, “is not only the most beautiful part of the Louvre, it is also, in the opinion of this critic, just as beautiful a room of architecture, classical or otherwise, such as can be found anywhere in the world.

There is only one cavil. Only a few color images are inserted into the 6 x 9 inch book, and the black and white reproductions are devoid of fine detail. More seriously, one cannot easily trace the evolution of the Louvre with only plans in guard and some occasional illustrations. Many of these problems are mitigated by Rizoliis new and oversized “The Louvre: History, Collections, Architecture” (615 pages, $100), with lavish color photographs by Gérard Rondeau that can be almost as alluring as the art depicted. The text of the historian Geneviève Bresc-Bautier, former director of the museum’s sculpture department, assumes too much knowledge of the subject and hides ideas in institutional prose translated dryly. But with Guillaume Fonkenell, Ms. Bresc-Bautier edited the definitive Histoire du Louvre in three volumes (2016), to which Mr. Gardner pays homage, so this text is also useful for reference.

And these two books amply support Mr. Gardner’s assertion that “the Louvre is a work of art as great as all that it contains.”

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