The Louvre Palace is “royal Paris”, a part of the French capital that no visitor should miss. Palace of the Kings and Queens of France, the Louvre has now become one of the world’s most visited museum. The Louvre and the Tuileries are the starting points of the grand Historical Axis. This magnificent vista runs through some of Paris’ most celebrated monuments and squares: the Glass Pyramid of the Louvre in the Cour Napoléon, the Arc du Carrousel, the former Palace of the Tuileries destroyed in the 19th Century, and the gardens of the Tuileries. Beyond, the axis crosses the majestic Place de la Concorde and its Egyptian obelisk before running through the Champs-Elysées, dominated by the famous Arc de Triomphe.
The Louvre Palace
The great perspective starts at the Louvre, immediately beyond the Church of St Germain l’Auxerrois. The crab-shaped Palace was the main residence of the kings of France until 1682, when Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, moved his court to Versailles. It currently houses one of the world’s most wonderful museums in a complex that is known as the “Grand Louvre”.
The medieval castle which no longer exists today was built by King Philip Augustus in the 12th Century. Its foundations (including the keep, two towers and the support of the drawbridge) were excavated during the 1980s restoration and can be seen at the basement level.
In 1546, King Francis I (François 1er) decided to dismantle the medieval fortress in order to replace it with a larger and more fashionable structure based on the Renaissance. The Cour Carrée is one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in France.
Napoleon and Napoleon III worked on achieving the ‘Grand Dessein’ (Great Design) which King Henry IV (16th C) had in mind, which was to join the Louvre to the Tuileries Palace by a series of wings. The new complex was then a formidable array of buildings, the largest in Europe, as the Tuileries Palace closed off the western end of the Louvre courtyard.
The Sully Pavillon:
As for President François Mitterand, he left his mark with his pharaonic project of “Le Grand Louvre” that had to be completed for the bicentennial celebration of the French Revolution in 1989. The titanic project comprised of major renovation works (clearing the façade, transforming the interior, and the construction of underground hallways and a commercial centre), moving the Finance Ministry to a new modern building in Bercy, and the construction of a new landmark along the Historical Axis: the celebrated Glass Pyramid.
Today the Louvre Museum welcome 30,000 visitors each day and more than 35,000 masterpieces and artefacts are displayed across 400 rooms.
The Glass Pyramid of the Louvre
Some like it, others hate it… the imposing but controversial Glass Pyramid commissioned by Mitterand from Ieoh Ming Pei has played a major role in the “Grand Louvre” in serving as its principal entrance since 1988. With a height of 20 metres and its some 670 glass segments, the transparent monument echoes the Obelisk that rears up towards the sky in Place de la Concorde. It is not a surprise to find an Egyptian theme, dear to Mitterrand, in Paris. Besides, Ieoh Ming Pei may have come across similar design projects that had been proposed without success in the past. In fact a baroque pyramid was indeed put forward to be built in the Cour Napoléon for the centennial celebrations of the Revolution.
The symbolism behind the Egyptian pyramid lies in the cult of the Supreme Being (“Etre Suprême”) which can be seen in the frontispiece of the 1789 Declaration of Human Rights. This Masonic symbol (the ‘Eye in the Pyramid’) was also used in America. But even before the French Revolution, a pyramid to the glory of the Sun King was also proposed for the Cour Carrée by a French architect.
Further to the West lies another glass structure, the Inverted Pyramid (“Pyramide Inversée”) only visible from the underground “Galerie Carrousel du Louvre”. It brings a well of light to the centre of the visitor complex.
The Equestrian statue of Louis XIV
In the Cour Napoléon, the Historical Axis does not run through the Glass Pyramid and the centreline of the courtyard. This led architect Pei to request that a particular statue of Louis XIV be placed adjacent to the Pyramid and in the direct path of the Historical axis. The equestrian statue made in bronze portrays the Sun King as ‘Alexander the Great’. It is a later copy of the original statue executed by Bernini in 1668 in marble to be displayed at Versailles.
As for today, the Historical Axis leads through the Cour Napoléon to strike the Sully Pavilion, thus deviating from the centre line of the courtyard, where the Glass Pyramid now stands. From the second window of the Sully façade, the view along the great perspective all the way to the Grande Arche of La Défense is spectacular, and only a few Paris insiders will know of it!
The Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel
The second monument to be aligned with the Historical Axis, the Arc du Carrousel is a triumphal arch built by Napoleon from 1807 to 1808 to celebrate the victory of the French imperial army in Austerlitz. The Arc du Carrousel was designed by Charles Percier and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine on the model of the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Arch of Constantine in Rome.