Ombre Chat Noir

The Louvre Ghosts: It all began with a small castle

themes: periods: people: places:

It’s quite difficult to believe that, when it was founded, the gigantic structure of the Louvre palace was in fact a small, comely and modest fortress from the 11th Century. Today, the overall surface – not only the exposition space – it’s about 360.000 m², with a lot of history to be told in each of them. To walk the events marking this giant, ancient witness of Parisian history isn’t an impossible task, but we’ll have to speed up to warp speed through eight centuries of history. But worry not: with the Mad Hatter’s help, a true connoisseur of Time, everything is possible. I’m leaving: follow me if you want!

Today, the Louvre has two great courts:

  • The Cour Napoléon (Court of Napoleon) which hosts the famous glass pyramid with its mandatory forest of selfie sticks, now an integral part of the scenery
Io e il Louvre
The Cour Napolón and the mandatory selfie (stickless, I apologize).
  • the Cour Carée (Square Court), a very elegant court behind the pyramid, often ignored by the tourist masses. If you don’t stop to gaze in awe to its elegant façades, you’re missing big time.

The Mad Hatter hastily stirs his cup of tea and he brings us back to the times of brave and bold knights, mischievous dames and whimsical kings. We’re between 1190 and 1202. Paris was extremely smaller than today (but it was not compared to other medieval cities!) and it was mainly built on the north side of the river and on the Île de la Cité (the island on the Seine where Nôtre-Dame is).

Because of the bad vibes coming from over the Channel and from the near Normandy – a region still under the influence of the King of England – the King of France Philippe-Auguste (1165-1223) had many a sleepless night tormented by the terror of losing Paris. His Majesty decided, then, to enclose the city inside impenetrable walls, and while he was at it, he added a fortress on the north side of the Seine, to guard over the western walls: the first Louvre was born (taking his name from the place where it was built) and had absolutely nothing in common with the majestic palace we know today, apart from his position. In fact, it occupied down to a quarter of the Cour Carrée!

Louvre pianta
A map of the Louvre, yesterday and today. The red marks the part occupied by the medieval fortress of Philippe-Auguste (the dotted line marks the city walls, today missing, built by the King’s order). The blue marks where the pyramid is today, light blue shows the upside-down one you can find in the Carrousel mall and black is the actual map of today’s Louvre..

Inside the Louvre fortress there was a towering donjon, or fortified tower, that acted as garrison, arsenal, treasury and VIP jail (“Very Illustrious Prisoners” such as special-care criminals or important traitors.)

The simplified map of Philippe-Auguste’s fortress. The southern door which opened on the Seine was fitted with a drawbridge).
La fortezza del Louvre come appariva dalla Senna
Louvre fortress, seen from the Seine. The donjon towers over all the other towers, and it’s said it reached 30 meters of height
Pozzo e cisterna donjon
Traces of the donjon’s well and cistern in the Cour Carrée.
Decorazioni cripta Louis IX
Gothic decorations in one of the castle crypts dating back to the days of the reign of Louis IX’s, a.k.a. Saint Louis (1226-1270)

The fortress’s role was for a long time to defend the western walls of the city, while the kings resided in the safety of the royal palace on the Île de la Cité (literally. “the Island of the City”, where Nôtre-Dame is).

The palace of the Conciergerie on the Île de la Cité seen from the northern bank (Rive Droite): was the Parisian residence of the Kings of France before the Louvre.

A spin of the spoon, some tea drops fall on the tablecloth and… we’re in the year 1380: the city had expanded and incorporated Philippe-Auguste’s fortress, making it completely useless as a defense spot, King Charles V (1338-1380) decided to turn it into the new royal residence.

The red line marks the new walls under Charles V in the XIV century: the oldest ones, built by order of Philippe-Auguste are marked with the dotted line. After the new walls enclosed it in the city, the Louvre had lost its defensive role. Then, why don’t turn it into a palace?

The fortress’s appearance became more fairy-tale, with pointy rooftops, chimneys and larger, brighter windows that made the environment more elegant and comfortable (from the point of view of XIV’s century people, of course!).

Il Louvre sotto Charles V
The Louvre under Charles V.


Fondamenta della fortezza del Louvre
The foundation of the Louvre fortress can be visited under the Sully wing of the museum.

First half of the 1500: king François I (1495-1547) decided to turn the Louvre into his city residence but… the horror! The king who so much loved Italian Reinassance could not bear to live in an old, gloomy, absolutely demodée medieval hovel.

François I portrayed by Jean Clouet with the guidelines of his artistic-aesthetic project for France.

His Majesty enrolled the kingdom’s most fashionable architect, Pierre Lescot (1515-1578) to raze the main tower and build a Reinassance-style palace, with lots of columns, pediments, symmetry and proportions.

Facciata Lescot
the façade on the Cour Carrée by Pierre Lescot: bye-bye Middle Ages, welcome Reinassance!

Nice plan, but it will be accomplished by François’s heir, Henri (1519-1559). The main access to the new Louvre palace was opened in the medieval walls preserved from destruction to the east.

The Louvre under François I and his son Henri II. No more donjon.


Decorazione scalone Henri II Louvre
Decoration from one of the main stairs of the Louvre, dating back to King Henri II. His Majesty had chosen the crescent moon as her emblem, symbol of the Goddess of Hunt, Diana. COURTLY GOSSIP: the more mischievous couldn’t help but see a clear reference to the king’s favorite: Diane of Poitiers, who herself had chosen the lunar Goddess as a personal symbol. I can just picture Queen Caterina de Medici’s happiness while climbing up those stairs…


Insegne di Henri II
Henri II’s monogram, an H and two intertwined Ds, apparently for “deuxième” (‘the second’) but they might as well be for Diane…

(To discover more about the sad sentimental life of Caterina de’ Medici, Italian queen victim of a cruel love triangle, read “Nobody would have wanted to be Caterina.”)

Sala delle Cariatidi
Room of the Caryatides was the ballroom of the new Louvre palace in Reinassance style. The balcony was reserved to musicians. A hundred years after its creation, in this same room, Molière performed for the first time before the Sun King, who was barely twenty at the time: it was the beginning of the playwright’s fortune.[/

Another spoon spin and we’re in the second half of 1500 (1589): the Louvre remained a constant construction site, even under the descendants of Henri II. His widow, Caterina de’ Medici, like any good Florence woman, lover of Reinassance’s tidiness and harmony, decided to take the matter in her own hands, that the old Louvre was always messy and filled to the brim with bad memories, he couldn’t stomach it any longer. So, she had a new palace built, a bit to the west, on the site where once were some tile (tuiles) factories. From here, it took the name of the Tuileries.

Caterina de Medici, Charles IX e Henri III
Caterina de’ Medici and two of her 10 children: King Charles IX (in the middle) and Henri III (the king with the pearl earring, as I dubbed him) who saw the birth of the Palace of the Tuileries from the Louvre’s windows.


Palais de Tuileries
Palace of the Tuileries, wanted by Caterina de’ Medici, painted by Israel Silvestre. In Caterina’s times, the last pavillion on the right didn’t exist, and the building was much more symmetric.
Louvre map at the end of 1500: blue marks on the right Henri II’s palace and the add-ons of his heirs (Charles IX and Henri III); westwards, beyond the moat of Charles V’s walls (demolished in 1512), there was Caterina’s Palace of the Tuileries (again, in blue). Red marks the remains of the medieval walls.

We went through three centuries thanks to the Mad Hatter’s abilities, but from where we stand, the Louvre was still quite far from his modern apparel. Many things still have to happen: a half-kilometer long gallery, a Cour Carréè twice as big and incomplete, a breath-taking façade without a roof and the scene entrance of the most terrible rival: the Palace of Versailles.

(Follow the Mad Hatter in the Sun King years in the next article:”The Louvre Ghosts: how to build a gigantic palace and then abandon it“)