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
- 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!
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 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).
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 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!).
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.
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.
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.
(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.”)
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.
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“)