Louvre Museum, Paris
Housed in a grand 16th- to 19th-century palace stretching along the Seine River, the Musée du Louvre (Louvre Museum) in Paris is one of the largest and most important museums in the world. Housing a staggering collection of artifacts from Europe and beyond, including many priceless treasures of religious art, the Louvre is a must-see for any visitor to Paris.
In the Middle Ages, the fortress used by Philippe-Auguste (1190-1202) was already known as the Palais du Louvre (a name with unknown origins). This small castle was located in the southwest corner of the Cour Carrée, at the east end of the present complex. Successive rulers added to the fortress, making it ever more opulent over the centuries.
Today's Palais du Louvre dates primarily from the late 16th century (south gallery facing the Seine) and 19th century (virtually everything else). The famous Pyramid in the center of the main courtyard, which serves as an entrance as well as a work of art, was designed by I.M. Pei in 1989.
The royal collection that would become the Louvre Museum began with King François I, a patron of the arts who invited Leonardo da Vinci to work in France during the last few years of his life (d.1519). Subsequent royals continued the tradition of patronage and began to set aside rooms in the palace for antiquities. King Louis XVI, who acquired several important paintings of the Spanish and Dutch schools, planned to open a museum inside the palace.
But it was not until 1793 that the Louvre's collections were first opened to the public, as the Musée de la République. Spoils of war collected by the Republican and Napoleonic armies added greatly to the collection, including some of the most famous paintings in Europe (the French government returned some of these treasures after 1815). The Venus de Milo and many paintings were acquired under King Louis XVIII and King Charles X began to collect Egyptian artifacts under the influence of Egyptologist Champollion.
What to See
The Louvre Museum is extremely large and impossible to see in its entirety in a single day. Visitors are advised to plan a visit based on their particular interests and spread their time over several days if possible. The color-coded maps provided by the museum are excellent for planning, showing the locations and highlights of each department and pointing out exactly where to find the most famous exhibits, such as the Venus de Milo and Mona Lisa.
The layout of the historic Palais du Louvre and its multiple floors can make navigation confusing, but the museum is otherwise one of the most visitor-friendly in Europe. The exhibits are beautifully presented, well-labeled and well-lit; the allowance of photography (except in the Paintings department) contributes to the enjoyment of the exhibits and prevents an unpleasant atmosphere of stern policing by guards. The departments and room numbers are clearly marked with signs.
The museum's galleries are clean and spacious, making a wander around a relaxed experience despite the millions of annual visitors. An exception, of course, is the Mona Lisa, which attracts tightly-packed crowds and is rather unpleasant. Slightly smaller crowds congregate around the Venus de Milo sculpture and Virgin of the Rocks painting, but that leaves almost 35,000 objects left to enjoy in peace. Inevitable musuem fatigue is soothed by frequent benches, the cooling fountain around the Pyramid outside and two on-site cafés.
To avoid long lines, buy tickets in advance or use an entrance other than the Pyramid. Advance tickets can be bought as part of the Paris Museum Pass; online at www.louvre.fr; or in French stores including FNAC, Galeries Lafayette, Printemps Haussmann, and Virgin).
The collections of the Louvre are divided into eight departments, plus the Medieval Louvre (a section of the 12th-century fortress) and Primitive Arts sections. These are spread over four floors (Lower Ground through Second Floor) and three wings: Denon (south); Sully (east); and Richelieu (north).
The Paintings department of the Louvre Museum displays works from every European school that range in date from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. It covers the largest portion of the building: Richelieu second floor (14th-17th century French and Northern schools); Sully second floor (17th-19th century); and Denon first floor (icons, large French 19th-century paintings, Italian, Spanish and English schools).
Highlights of this section include the Mona Lisa (1503), Leonardo da Vinci's enigmatic portrait of a young woman; the Virgin of the Rocks (1482) also by Leonardo; The Wedding Feast at Cana by Veronese; Self-Portrait with a Thistle (1493) by Albrecht Dürer; Coronation of the Virgin (1432) by Fra Angelico; and St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata (1290) by Giotto.
The Department of Prints and Drawings was established in 1986 and contains about 130,000 cartoons, drawings, pastels and miniatures. These works are especially fragile and sensitive to light, so only a small part of the collection is displayed in any one time. They can be viewed primarily in three rooms of the Sully wing on the second floor.
The fascinating department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities encompasses artifacts from the Mediterranean region ranging in date from the 4th millennium BC to the 6th century AD. The core of the collection is objects acquired by French royalty, augmented by artworks seized during the Revolution.
The section begins on the Lower Ground floor of the Denon wing with three rooms of works from Pre-classical Greece. A highlight here is the collection of Cycladic sculptures remarkable for their ancient date (3000-2000 BC) and ultra-modern appearance.
The ground floor of Denon and Sully contains two dozen rooms dedicated to Greek Antiquities and Etruscan and Roman Antiquities. The former contains the famous Venus de Milo (2nd century BC) and the later features an important Etruscan tomb known as the Sarcophagus of the Married Couple (6th century BC). The Roman section includes some important Early Christian art, including sarcophagi, terracotta pilgrim flasks and mosaics.
The department concludes on the first floor of the Sully wing with the Winged Victory of Samothrace (c.200 BC), three rooms of Bronze and Precious Objects, four rooms of Terracotta artifacts from the Greco-Roman period and nine rooms of Greek Ceramics.
The Louvre's Department of Egyptian Antiquities is exceptionally rich, thanks in large part to the persuasive abilities of Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832), who convinced Charles VIII to buy three major Egyptian collections. Other objects were later added by private donation and purchase.
The objects in this department date from the prehistoric period (c.4000 BC) to the Coptic Christian era (4th century AD) and are divided into three sections. The largest section is Pharaonic Egypt, which occupies 19 rooms on the ground floor of the Sully wing and is arranged chronologically (beginning in the south next to Greek Antiquities). This contains many highly important artifacts and excellent displays describing life and death in Ancient Egypt.
Roman Egypt (1st-4th centuries) and Coptic Egypt (4th-14th centuries) are located on the lower ground floor. The former includes funerary objects and mummy portraits of Roman Egyptian nobility; a highlight of the latter is a famous Coptic fresco of Christ and Abbot Mena. In addition to many artworks, the Coptic section contains part of a 4th-century monastic church from Baouit, which was abandoned in the 12th century and excavated by French archaeologists in the 20th century.
Established in 1881 and housed in 25 rooms on the ground floor of Richelieu and Sully, the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities contains artifacts dating from 10,000 years ago to the advent of Islam in the 7th century. Its geographical range extends from modern-day Pakistan to the Mediterranean Sea, representing all the great ancient civilizations of the Near East.
The department is divided into three sections: Mesopotamia (Sumeria, Assyria and Babylon/modern-day Iraq, E Syria, SE Turkey and SW Iran); Ancient Iran (Elamites, Persians, Parthians and Sassanids/modern Iran and parts of Afghanistan); and the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Cyprus).
The most famous exhibit here is the Code of Hammurabi (c.1800 BC), a stele from Mesopotamia inscribed with the oldest written law code. The Akkadian cuneiform script lists 282 laws touching on virtually every aspect of Babylonian society. Also here are colossal statues of winged bulls with human heads, which protected a palace of the great Assyrian Empire (9th-7th centuries BC).
The Arts of Islam is the newest department in the Louvre, separated from Near Eastern Antiquities in 2003. It contains over 1,000 works of Islamic art from the 7th century to modern times, originating in all parts of the Muslim Empire except for North Africa.
The exhibits are spread over 12 rooms on the lower ground floor of Richelieu, presented generally in chronological order. Most of the artifacts are luxury objects such as decorated ceramics and bowls. One dish from medieval Eastern Iran bears the inscription: "Science: its taste is bitter at the beginning, but at the end sweeter than honey. Good health to the owner."
The extensive Department of Decorative Arts occupies the entire first floor of the Richelieu wing and displays portable treasures from Late Antiquity to the early 19th century. Also here are the beautiful Napoleon III Apartments with original furnishings.
The author spent the most time in the wonderful Middle Ages section, which occupies a wide hallway in the center of Richelieu. Arranged both chronologically and geographically, the exhibits cover the period from Late Antiquity (5th century AD) to the Renaissance. Highlights include porphyry columns from the 4th-century St. Peter's Basilica built by Constantine; Carolingian plaques; Byzantine ivories; the Eagle of Abbot Suger (1122-51) from the treasury of Saint-Denis; Limoges enamel reliquaries; and medieval stained glass windows.
The remainder of the department is divided into Renaissance (with many domestic items including a large collection of tapestries), 17th Century, 19th Century, the Restoration, and the July Monarchy.
The Department of Sculpture displays all post-classical sculpture, ranging in date from the Early Middle Ages to the 19th century. The largest section is French Sculpture, which occupies most of the Richelieu ground and lower ground floors. The earliest sculptures are in the first rooms of the ground floor and include 5th/6th-century columns with capitals from Notre-Dame de la Daurade in Toulouse; a 6th-century capital of Daniel in the Lions' Den from Paris; and a Late Romanesque retable of The Annunciation, Virgin in Majesty and Baptism of Christ from Carrieres-sur-Seine, a dependency of Saint-Denis.
This fascinating exhibition is a sample of about 120 works owned by the Musee du Quai Branly, displayed in the west pavilion of the Denon ground floor, just inside the Porte des Lions entrance. Highlights include a moai statue from Easter Island; a variety of intriguing fertility figures from Africa and Polynesia; Mayan reliefs; and statues from Teotihuacan, Mexico.
Quick Facts on the Louvre Museum
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Map of the Louvre Museum
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Louvre Museum. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.
- Personal visits (most recent July 21, 2008).
- Delia Gray-Durant, Blue Guide Paris, 11th ed. (New York: WW Norton, 2007), 138-208.
- Louvre Museum Database - official website
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