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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of the Palais du Louvre in Paris

What is the Palais du Louvre?

Palais du Louvre, or The Louvre Palace in English, is a magnificent Renaissance palace in Paris that was built by King Francis in the mid-16th century, and once served as a fortress at the western edge of the city.

Palais du Louvre

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Palais du Louvre History

Today’s Louvre Palace, once the home of kings, itself represents the culmination of a glorious succession of royal palaces. They trace their origins to the 12th century, when King Phillipe-Auguste ordered a fortress to be constructed here, just west of the newly built walls of the city. Its strategic position on the right bank of the Seine protected Paris from English and Norman invaders. The foundations of the fortress and its moat are on display in the museum’s subterranean depths. Down there, you’ll also find a model showing what the medieval Louvre looked like.

The origins of the Louvre’s name are obscure, but several theories exist. Louvre could derive from the Latin word for wolf, lupus, referring to the forest which surrounded the area in the early Middle Ages, where wolves freely roamed. Louvre could also derive from Frankish or Saxon word Lower, meaning a fortified place. Or perhaps it’s a corruption of the French verb for work, oeuvrer, suggesting the huge amount of labour that went into the castle’s construction.

150 years after building began, the rapidly-expanding city started to encroach upon the Louvre’s position at the edge of Paris and it lost its defensive function. During the reign of Charles V in the 14th century, the redundant fortress, now fully assimilated into the city, was converted into a royal palace. In 1356, eight years before Charles became king, his father had been captured by English forces and imprisoned at the Tower of London. Charles was forced to pay a ransom for the king’s safe release. This proved an embarrassing episode for the young prince: the English had made him look weak and undermined the legitimacy of the Valois dynasty. The Louvre, therefore, presented the new king with the means to assert his authority and establish a new, conspicuous residence in the city.

After the early death of Charles V, the medieval Louvre began to deteriorate, and it was demolished in the mid-16th century by King Francis I, and replaced by the Renaissance palace which you see today. Francis rejected a project by the famous Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio, and instead chose Pierre Lescot, a relative amateur, to prepare designs for his new palace. Lescot laboured for two decades, long after Francis’ death, producing a rare work of architectural genius. The 20th-century art historian Anthony Blunt described Lescot’s design as ‘a mixture of Italian features with others which derive from the French tradition’, and thus his style is a ‘form of French Classicism, having its own principles and its own harmony’.

Over the centuries, there have been many modifications to the new Louvre. One of the most iconic is the Colonnade de Perrault, which now forms the eastern façade of the building. It was commissioned by Louis XIV and is named after the physician Claude Perrault, one of the most brilliant minds of his day. The colonnade was a collaboration between Perrault, an amateur architect, and two more experienced professionals: Louis Le Vau and Charles Le Brun, the king’s chief architect and painter respectively. The neoclassical colonnade, formed of 52 Corinthian columns, interprets the architectural rules established by the ancient Roman writer Vitruvius, whose celebrated treatise De architectura Perrault had translated into French around the same time.

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