Chateau de Louvre, Paris, France

It comes as a great surprise to most visitors that the Chateau de Louvre in Paris – best known for its wonderous art gallery – has, hidden in one of it’s basements, the remains of the original castle which stood on the site.

Indeed, the Louvre has a long history as a fortification dating back to the first rampart built around Paris by Philippe Augustus around 1190. At the time Paris was Europe’s largest City and it was under constant threat from Anglo-Norman invasion. Shortly after this Philippe Augustus decided to add a fortress to the rampart which he built on the western edge of Paris by the bank of the Seine. This castle was large and basically square with circular towers on the corners and a large gatehouse – somewhat ahead of it’s time – and became known as the Louvre (it is believed from the French for a female wolf “louve” as it was built on woodlands, although this is not backed up by any documentary proof).

The Salle Basse (lower hall) is the cheif remnant of the Chateau today and was added between 1230 and 1240. It once had a vaulted ceiling and its function is unclear, although it is very large. Also existing are parts of the moat and the walling around it, and the base of what is believed to be the keep.

With the advent of the 100 Years’ War around 1358 it became necessary for Paris to have new fortifications; by this time the City had expanded beyond the original ramparts and so the whole new City was enclosed in a further city wall. This moved the defensive onus off of the Louvre which was now inside the fortified area. Around 1364 Charles V made the decision to transform the Louvre from castle to palace. He employed Raymond du Temple to undertake this change. Du Temple’s alterations were extensive, but he kept the basic form of the original buildings. Charles VI also lived at the Louvre but then it was abandoned by the Royal family and left to its own devices.

All this changed in 1527 when François I decided to move his court back to Paris. He had the medieaval keep (the Grosse Tour) demolished to make way for a more modern Renaissance style building. Even with this work, François and his successor Henri II did not consider the Louvre to be large and impressive enough. Between them they added two new wings on the west and south of the Palace plus a number of halls and other sections.

By 1564 the Louvre was a confused mess of new Renaissance buildings, half constructed works and 200 year old ruins. On the death of Henri II his widow, the infamous Catherine de Medici, ordered the construction of the Tuilleries Palace to the west. This was eventually connected to the old Louvre in 1566.

Henri IV began extensive works to turn the two Palaces into one, but he was assassinated in 1610 and succeeded by nine year old Louis XIII. The work stalled for many years. Louis XIII and his son, Louis XIV (the “Sun” King), undertook massive works on the Louvre. In 1672, however, Louis XIV suddenly lost interest and moved to Versailles.

Twenty years on and Louis, now totally disinterested in the works at the Louvre, gave the property to the Académie Française who began to use part of the Palace as an exhibition hall. This was, of course, the beginning of arguably Europe’s greatest art collection.

Surpringly, Louis XV resumed work on the Louvre in 1756, roofing the Cour Carrée which had been left open to the elements in 1672 and generally fixing the accumulated damage of the last 80 years.

In 1793 Louis XVI was the last King to own the Louvre. He was guillotined in January of that year as the French Revolution took full hold. Napoleon Bonaparte began to bring the treasures he was “collecting” from Europe to the Louvre where they were put on display as a “people’s museum”. From this time on the Louvre would function as both a museum and the seat of the French Government.

Throughout the 19th Century the museum grew in size as more and more exhibits were added. In 1871 the Paris Commune set light to the Tuilleries which were subsequently demolished. The Louvre escaped relatively unharmed and expansion continued. At the end of the 19th Century the museum took over sole usage of the Louvre for the first time, in 1961 the last vestige of Government – the Ministry of Finance – moved from the Palace.

The Louvre Museum today is home to some of the greatest artistic treasures of the World. Most famously, of course, is Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” (or “La Giaconda” to be strictly accurate), but amongst the other works here are the Venus de Milo, countless paintings by the most famous artists of all time, sculptures, furniture, glassware, metalware and other artistic endeavours – more than enough to sate even the most hungry of cultural appetites – it would literally take days to see it all.

The controversial Glass Pyramid was opened in the courtyard in 1989, and today the Louvre is without a doubt France’s premier art gallery and one of the greatest collections in the World.

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