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From fortress to the biggest museum in the world: The History of the Louvre Palace

For those visiting the Louvre Museum, it is inevitable to walk around its beautiful corridors wondering if this massive building was always meant to be a museum. But the answer is simple: No, before being a museum, The Louvre Palace, as the building is known, served different purposes throughout the times. 

From a fortress to a Royal residence, the Louvre Palace has a rich history and has undergone various transformations since its construction. Learn here about the history of the Louvre Palace.

The History of the Louvre

A Medieval Louvre Fortress

The Louvre’s origins date back to the late 12th century when King Philip II, before leaving for the Third Crusade, realized thats the capital of his kingdom, Paris, needed more protection, especially against the English soldiers based in Normandy. 

He then requested the construction of a fortress on the right bank of the Seine River, that could also serve as a safe place for the King. Before the fortress, King Phillip II had already requested the construction of a wall that bears his name, the fortress was then built in a more exposed area, that needed more defense. 

The Louvre fortress received its name, most likely because the area chosen for the construction was known as lupara, and although there are some discussions about the meaning of the name, one of the opinions is that the word has its roots in the Latin lupus, meaning wolf, so the translation of lupara would be rough “the place where wolves live”. However, some believe it may come from the archaic French lauer or lower, meaning “Watch Tower”. 

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

A squared fortress was then built, with a total of 10 defense towers, and served for defense purposes, and a refuge for the King. The royal treasure and the King’s archives were also kept safe within its walls. 

Although a great part of the fortress was demolished during the centuries, a part of it can still be seen today and is considered one of the highlights of the Louvre Museum

Louvre Castles: A Fortress tuned into a Royal Residence

In the 13th century, under the reign of Louis IX, the Louvre fortresses were enlarged, with new rooms being built without any defense purposes. 

During Charles V of France though, a new wall was built alongside the city of Paris, and for the first time, the fortress found itself inside the walls, From then on, the castle lost most of its defense purposes, being used mainly as one of the residences of the French Royal family, turning the old fortress into the medieval Louvre Castle. 

The fort was divided into apartments, and leisure rooms were planned. As a result, the Tower of the Falconry, which the name suggests, had military purposes, was turned into the First Royal Library, with a collection of over nine hundred manuscripts, later, this collection gave origin to the National Library of France. 

Unfortunately, the years that followed were tough years for the French people, and all the turmoil made the nobles move the court away from the capital, leaving the Louvre Castle to its own fate. 

The Revival: The Louvre Palace history

Then Francis I came into power, a patron of art and scholarship, Francis I became known as the Renaissance Monarch. His love for art is responsible for bringing great names such as Leonardo da Vinci to France and developing the artistic circles of the country. 

After losing a battle in Pavia, Francis I was made prisoner, during this period he saw the Parliament of Paris trying to get some independence. Once free, Francis I decided to move his court to the Louvre Castle as a response. Closer to the capital who would be able to control the situation better. 

So in 1546, Francis I hired the architect Pierre Lescot, with the mission of giving the Louvre Castle a new and more modern face. The castle was demolished and a new one, a bigger, more opulent, and modernized palace was built in its place: The Louvre Palace. 

It was not until his grandson Henry III that the Louvre Palace started experiencing its full glory, it then became a place for royalty and entertainment.

In 1610, a great gallery (the Grand Gallery) was built between the Louvre Palace and the Tuileries Palace as a way for the monarchs to move between palaces safely. 

The modernization work continued until Louis XIV’s reign when he decided to move on to a new project: The Versailles Palace. 

Soon the Louvre Palace was left by the court once again. 

The Louvre Museum

While the court was away at Versailles, the Louvre Palace became a residence for nobles and artists. As a result, the Sub King decided to open the Grand Gallery to the public and exhibit here the royal collection, that grew with the military successes, confiscations, and donations. 

It was not until the French Revolution though that the Louvre Palace was officially called a museum, after a decree by the National Assemble. The Louvre Museum was officially opened on 10 August 1793, displaying 537 paintings, the great part of it being confiscated church property. 

During Napoleon, the collection grew (who could guess, right?!) but after the fall of Napoleon, many of the seized items were then sent back to their original owners. From then on though, the Louvre Museum’s collection only grew, and nowadays houses over 50,000 items, with 35,000 of them on display, divided into eight departments. 

Conclusion

The Louvre Palace’s complex history and architectural evolution make it a fascinating landmark that encapsulates the cultural and artistic journey of France over the centuries.

From its medieval origins as a fortress defending the city to its transformation into a Renaissance palace under the vision of King Francis I, the Louvre’s walls have witnessed centuries of change. The shift from a royal residence to a public museum during the French Revolution marked a revolutionary moment, opening its doors to people from all walks of life.

Today, the Louvre Palace not only houses invaluable artworks and artifacts but also stands as a living testament to the enduring power of art and history, connecting people across centuries and generations, making it a true cultural epicenter and a global symbol of artistic legacy.

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