Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Louvre: France's Greatest Castle by McKenna Darby

Welcome back to History Undressed, McKenna Darby! Today she's written a great article on one of my favorite places in Paris, France -- The Louvre. Enjoy!


by McKenna Darby

We all know the Louvre as one of the world’s greatest art museums, but the building that houses the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa began, in every sense of the word, as a castle.

The Louvre was built in 1190 as a watchtower and fortress. Its location — on the right bank of the Seine, at the city’s western edge — was strategically chosen by Philip Augustus, last king of the Franks. His goal was to protect Paris from my ancestors, the English, whose territory included parts of what is now western France, just 60 kilometers from Paris.

The Louvre protected the city’s western flank, deterring an attack by land, and guarding traffic on the Seine, the city’s main commercial water route. A defensive wall starting at the Louvre was built around the city’s entire right bank. A second wall, built later, secured the city’s left bank. (Although largely demolished centuries ago, portions of this wall are still visible at spots in modern Paris.)

Philip Augustus’ cylindrical watch tower (known as the Grosse Tour and originally surrounded by a dry moat), was soon expanded with the addition of a courtyard surrounded by a square wall fitted with turrets. A water-filled moat was dug around the wall. The original tower became home to the city’s archives and the kingdom’s treasure. The fortress held the city’s arsenal.

In the centuries that followed, the Louvre grew and expanded, becoming the home of French rulers from Charles V in the 14th century until Louis XIV moved the French court to Versailles in 1682. After the Revolution, Napoleon again used the Louvre as a home, sharing the space with the art museum begun when Louis XIV left the city.

Louvre from inside Pei's pyramid
At the start of the Renaissance, Philip Augustus’ Louvre was demolished, lost to history. Or so we thought until 1983, when excavations for a new underground visitor’s center beneath a glass pyramid designed by I.M. Pei uncovered the foundations of the original castle. Today, visitors to the Louvre can walk around those remarkably preserved foundations, treading where the wet moat once protected the keep, and see the pediments that supported the drawbridge. Of all the Louvre’s wonders, this basement display is one of my favorites, almost like stepping into a time teleportation device.
Ancient Moat
Another favorite spot is the Cour Carrée, the last externally visible remnant of Francois I’s Louvre . For 100 years after the death of Charles VI, the Louvre was largely abandoned. That changed in 1527, when Francois decided to leave behind the Loire Valley and reside in Paris. He demolished Philip Augustus’ fortress and began an entirely new Louvre, which became the foundation for expansion and renovation by every ruler that followed.
Court Carree
Most of the Louvre’s facades are relatively modern, dating to the 1800s. But this one courtyard is exactly as Francois, the country’s first Renaissance king, planned it in the early 1500s. It was completed after the king’s death by his son, Henri II, who was married to Catherine de Medici. Catherine was devoted to her husband, whom she adored, but Henri was devoted to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Whenever I visit this courtyard, I imagine an echo of Catherine pacing, seething over some new defeat at the hands of her rival.

The other place I picture Catherine is in the Chambre de Parade du Roi, the room where the royal rising ceremony was held in the 16th century during the reigns of Catherine’s sons, Charles IX and Henri III. The ornately carved wood paneling in this room, commissioned by Catherine’s husband Henri II and carved by Scibec de Carpi, is considered the finest Renaissance paneling that survives in Paris. In that room, I can almost hear the arguments between Catherine, a Catholic who fought most of her life for religious tolerance of the growing Protestant movement (although she is also widely blamed for sparking the largest massacre of Protestants in French history), and the Duc de Guise, Henri’s uncle and an avowed Protestant-hater. Pity the king caught between that irresistible force and immovable object.
Henri II woodwork
Ironically, it was not one of Catherine’s sons but her nephew, the Bourbon Protestant king Henri IV, who built the Grand Galerie (Grand Gallery) to link the Louvre with Catherine’s pet construction project, the Tuileries Palace. Henri IV was assassinated before he could finish the project; it was completed by Louis XIV. The Tuileries burned down in 1871, torched by an angry political mob, but the Louvre was saved. The Grand Gallery, home to most of the museum’s Leonardo da Vinci collection, features prominently in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, as the site of the murder that launches the story.

Another beautiful Louvre spot is the Salle des Caryatids, named for the four female figures sculpted by Jean Goujon in 1550 to support the musician’s gallery above. 

Salle des Caryatids

When visiting the Louvre, it’s difficult to tear your attention away from the magnificent paintings on the walls and the sculptures lining the halls, but don’t forget to look up. The Louvre’s breathtaking ceilings tell much of its history as a castle.

The Denon Room, named for the Louvre’s first director under Napoleon I, features a ceiling created for Napoleon III’s legislative assemblies. It was painted by Charles-Louis Müller to glorify state patronage in France. Flooded with light from the third story windows that circle it, the ceiling is one of the castle’s most impressive works of art.

Denon Ceiling

Perhaps the most fitting piece of art in a castle that has seen so much change and strife is in the former study of Louis XIV. Beginning in 1722, it was used as a meeting room for the Académie Royal, protectors of French culture. The ceiling painting in this room is by Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse. Created in 1821, ostensibly to celebrate discovery of the Venus de Milo, the painting has a title that roughly translates: Time Lays Low All Things of Man.

Time Lays Low

McKenna Darby writes romantic historical novels set during the French Renaissance and the American Civil War. Visit her at http://mckennadarby.com


Angelyn said...

I've been to the Louvre a couple of times and came away all muddled because of its immensity and its contents. Very comprehensive post--I didn't know about the excavations beneath the pyramid.

McKenna Darby said...

It's easy to miss, hidden away where most people are focused on getting their tickets and dashing off to see the Mona Lisa. It's also ironic. When the pyramid plans were disclosed, so many people objected to the design. But it actually revealed a vital, lost part of the Louvre's history.

Personally, I find the pyramid beautiful, especially at night, when it sparkles like a diamond. There's no way to truly appreciate it until you visit. When you do, it's breathtaking, and the contrast in design makes the Louvre itself even more beautiful.

Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting, Angelyn!

Ella Quinn - Romance Novelist said...

I love the Louvre. We've been there a few times. Great post!!

Sharla Rae said...

Loved your blog. I've been there but we didn't have time to explore everything and now more than ever I want to back!

Ally Broadfield said...

Wonderful post, McKenna. I hope to visit someday. The Court Carree reminds me of Palace Square and Alexander Column at the Hermitage.

Debby Lee said...

Okay, reading this makes me want to hop on a plane and go directly to France. I've never been to The Louvre but I sure want to go, now. Thanks for posting such an interesting and educational article.

McKenna Darby said...

How wonderful that so many of you have visited the Louvre!

I hope you get to go soon, Ally (just pack your most comfortable shoes and plan at least two days if you can). I've never been to the Hermitage, but now I have another in a long list of reasons to go soon. Thanks for the tip!

Lana Williams said...

Great post, McKenna! Very informative and interesting! It is definitely on my to-go list! Thanks for sharing - and I tweeted as well!