Among its riches it houses Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, as well as many choice items looted by Napoleon during his years of conquest in Europe and Africa.
The Louvre started life as a 12th Century fortress. At the time it was the largest structure in Paris. Some authorities consider that it got its name from the French word for masterpiece: L’Œuvre.
It received regular makeovers from a succession of French rulers in the 13th and 14th Centuries, with Charles V converting it into his Paris residence in the late 14th Century.
In 1546 Francis I gave it a total renovation in French Renaissance style. Francis was the guy who used it to display some of his royal collection that now included the Mona Lisa.
In 1682 the Sun King, Louis XIV, bankrupted the country to build a new residence: Versailles. He moved his court there and agreed to the Louvre continuing to be used to display pieces from the royal collection.
It was Louis XVI that got the idea of the building becoming a permanent museum. Remodelling of the building was well underway in the latter part of the 18th Century, but far from completed, when liberté, égalité et fraternité trundled along the Parisian boulevards for an appointment with Madame Guillotine.
In 1791 the Assembly of the French Revolution affirmed the Louvre would continue to be used as a museum, “bringing together monuments of all the sciences and arts”. To help get matters started, the royal collection was declared national property.
The new museum of the new Republic was opened on August 10, 1793, the first anniversary of the fall of the monarchy. The public got free access three days per week.
The collection of 537 paintings and 184 objets d’art consisted of the royal collection, supplemented by items confiscated from the nobility and the Church.
Then came the great looting. It started with minor squabbles between the Republic and its nervous European neighbours. As a result, France’s revolutionary armies acquired a variety of artistic gems which they sent home.
The moment Napoleon took over as top dog, the pillaging of Europe’s art collections became systematic. So great was the Corsican’s haul, he constructed a new northern wing parallel to the Louvre’s Grande Galérie to house his loot.
It included major works by Spanish, Austrian, Dutch and Italian artists. Naturally, a grateful museum renamed the building Musee Napoleon in 1803.
Post-Waterloo, many of the former owners asked for the return of their plundered works. Some were handed over but many vanished into private French collections.
A change of heart — and government — in the 19th Century saw purchasing become the preferred way of adding to the museum’s rapidly growing holdings. This was to continue regardless of the manifold changes in the political winds.
This period saw the wholesale purchase of a number of major private collections. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte alone added 11,835 artworks, including paintings and Greek gold. One acquisition from this time was the Venus de Milo.
The museum survived the Franco-Prussian War and WWI, but WWII proved another story. With the outbreak of hostilities many works, including the Mona Lisa, were moved to Château de Chambord and Château de Valencay.
The building was more or less emptied and would remain so for the duration. It contents were returned only after the liberation of France.
The Louvre achieved more or less its present form in 1874. Little changed over the next 90 years. It was only in 1983 that the French President, Francois Mitterrand, regarded it as a candidate for one of his Grands Projets.
For starters he relocated the Finance Ministry to allow the building to become a museum in its entirety for the first time.
He then demanded a complete revamp. The climax of his grand plan saw Architect Leoh Ming Pei commissioned to construct a glass pyramid over the new entrance in the main court: Cour Napoléon.
The pyramid and its underground lobby were inaugurated on October 15, 1988, and completed in 1989. A further phase of Mitterrand’s grand plan saw the rise of La Pyramide Inversée (The Inverted Pyramid), completed in 1993.