Title: The Louvre: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum
Author: James Gardner
Genre: Non-fiction, History
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 2nd July 2020
Synopsis: A meticulously crafted, sparkling history of the legendary museum in Paris.
Almost nine million people from all over the world flock to the Louvre in Paris every year to see its incomparable art collection. Yet few, if any, are aware of the remarkable history of that location and of the buildings themselves, and how they chronicle the history of Paris itself – a fascinating story that historian James Gardner elegantly tells for the first time.
Before the Louvre was a museum, it was a palace, and before that a fortress. But much earlier still, it was a place called le Louvre for reasons unknown. People had inhabited that spot for more than 6,000 years before King Philippe Auguste of France constructed a fortress there in 1191 to protect against English soldiers stationed in Normandy. Two centuries later, Charles V converted the fortress to one of his numerous royal palaces. After Louis XIV moved the royal residence to Versailles in 1682, the Louvre inherited the royal art collection, which then included the Mona Lisa, given to Francis by Leonardo da Vinci; just over a century later, during the French Revolution, the National Assembly established the Louvre as a museum to display the nation’s treasures. Subsequent leaders of France, from Napoleon to Napoleon III to Francois Mitterand, put their stamp on the museum, expanding it into the extraordinary institution it has become.
With expert detail and keen admiration, James Gardner links the Louvre’s past to its glorious present, and vibrantly portrays how it has been a witness to French history – through the Napoleonic era, the Commune, two World Wars, to this day – and home to a legendary collection whose diverse origins and back stories create a spectacular narrative that rivals the building’s legendary stature.
Today we know The Louvre in Paris as a museum, the home of great artworks such as the Mona Lisa, yet its history is far more complex than that, and begin as a fortress, and moving through the Renaissance, the Revolution and the Napoleonic Age, shifts from the fortress to a lavish palace that is added to over several hundred years by each leader, until it became the museum that millions flock to today.
Prior to the building, it was a place known as le Louvre – inhabited for over 6,000 years – until King Phillipe Auguste built a fortress in 1191. James Gardner explores this history in detail, exploring the different stages of the Louvre, when they were built, why they were built and who instigated the designs and buildings, all the way up to modernity, and the evacuation of the treasures of the Louvre during the war years – a plan set in motion long before the war started as the growing presence of the Nazis converged on, and threatened Europe. These accounts are intriguing and chilling – they evoke a sense of what the Louvre has seen and experienced over the years, a sense of history that is perhaps not always considered when people visit or think about the Louvre.
Nine hundred years of French history is explored here – giving life to the museum and city – and the role that the Louvre plays in the life and history of Paris, now and throughout history. It is only a fraction of Parisian and French history, but it is a part of the history that has perhaps had great influence on Paris and France, and influenced what people see in the city and museum.
Most people attend the Louvre to see certain things or because it is a popular tourist attraction – that is the face and the surface of the Louvre. Dig a bit deeper, and you will see that is has lived a rich and deep life. A life that is complex and troubled, but also extravagant and lavish – many lives that have contributed to what it has become today and what it is now known as.
The history is as interesting as the museum. This book is dense and detailed, yet it is accessible to those who wish to know more, and uses images of the museum and the collections to tell the story alongside the words – this works well as it allows the two mediums to work together and evoke a sense of what the Louvre is, what it was and what it may become in the future.
I took time to read this book, getting to know the Louvre and all its history – it is detailed and accessible, and shows that the history behind what we know is often times more complex than what we may know or what we are told – that there is often more below the surface than what we are shown or told about something. We can apply this to many things – too many to list here but the impact will always be the same. History is always more detailed and more complex than some sources lead us to believe, and being open to what has been hidden, or simply not told, or in the case of the Louvre, not widely known, is something that historians should be open to.
An intriguing read and one that history buffs and art lovers will find fascinating.