Palais Du Louvre: History of the Louvre

The Louvre is the most famous building in the world. If the Tower, Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace and the National Gallery were all in one immense block, London would possess a building with some, but by no means all, the historical interest of the Palais du Louvre in Paris. Le vrai Palais de la France, tout le monde Z’a nomme, c’est le Louvre. The origin of the name is uncertain. There is a fantastic suggestion that it is derived from lupus, a wolf, since the first Louvre was built outside the walls of Paris and was sometimes used as a royal hunting-box. There is another suggestion that the ward comes from louver, a blockhouse, for the old Louvre had a tower that commanded the Seine, as the Tower of London commands the Thames.

The Palais du Louvre was first built in the twelfth century by King Philippe II., sometimes known as Philippe Auguste, whom we English remember because of his quarrel with Richard Coeur de Lion when they went together on Crusade. A shrewd man was Philippe, ” of agreeable face and ruddy complexion, loving good cheer, wine and women.” It was he who laid the foundations of the French absolute monarchy, cultivating good relations with the middle class, beginning the long struggle between the King and the great princes, and steadily befriending the Church, though this did not save him from very proper excommunication when he proposed to repudiate an uncomely Danish princess whom he had married for reasons of State. It was after his return from the Holy Land, having lost his hair at the siege of Acre, that Philippe began building the Louvre with its four towers and a central keep. It was a simple enough building, used in its early days more often as a prison than a palace.

It was in the Louvre that the peers were called together to condemn King John of England for the murder of Prince Arthur and to deprive him of his fiefs in France, proceedings which greatly added to the power and influence of the French King. Philippe’s grandson, St. Louis-saint, scholar and most efficient king-lived in the old palace of the kings that stood in the cite near Notre-Dame. There he fed the poor and humble, there he fasted and prayed, and there he entertained such guests as St. Thomas Aquinas, whom he loved to honour. But it was in the Louvre that St. Louis once gave a dramatic demonstration of his love of justice. One Enguerrand of Coney, had hanged three boys who had trespassed on his land, shooting at his rabbits with bow and arrow. Justice was demanded, as usual, by the Church, and Enguerrand was arrested and imprisoned in the Louvre. He was tried by his peers, the majority deeply resenting the suggestion that a great lord might not hang a poacher. But Louis was insistent and Enguerrand was condemned to a heavy fine for the endowment of masses for the souls of his victims, and to lose certain of his rights. This affair, says a chronicler, was a great example of justice to other kings, seeing that a man of such noble lineage, accused by poor and simple folk, barely escaped with his life before the lover and upholder of right.

St. Louis stands alone among the kings of Europe. Our own Edward is a saint and, so it is said, our Henry VI is soon to be canonised, but neither Edward nor Henry was very wise, while Louis was both wise and good. ” Many men wondered,” says the chronicler after the great King’s death, ” that one man so meek, so gentle, not strong of body nor strenuous in labour, could reign peacefully over so great a kingdom and so many powerful lords, especially as he was neither lavish in presence nor very complacent to some of them.” By his achievements, St. Louis demonstrated that when on a rare occasion the meek inherit the earth, they are able to administer it admirably. The children of light are, happily, more than a match for the children of this world.

Charles V extended the Louvre, building twelve new towers, in one of which he began the French National Library. Stormy meetings of the bats Generaux, the mediaeval parliament of France, were held in the Louvre, while Charles’s father was a prisoner in England after the defeat at Poitiers. The Paris merchants, backed by the Church, demanded the dismissal of certain royal ministers. They had already conceived the idea of no taxation without representation. The history of the French States-General is very different from that of the English Parliament. They went on meeting regularly through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but the French kings, unlike the English, succeeded in establishing absolutism, and with the beginning of the Bourbon period, the influence of the States-General came to an end. They met once after the accession of Henri IV.-and then not again till 1789.

The Louvre must have been a pleasant place in the time of Charles V. who, in his private life, attempted to follow in the footsteps of St. Louis. He laid out the Louvre gardens, planting the beds with strawberries and hyssop, and sage and lavender. The first clocks ever seen in France were installed in his palace, and in the records of his expenditure there is a payment of twenty francs to the servant ” who guards our nightingales of our chastel of the Louvre.”

Louis XI, the ablest of the Valois (the king immortalised in Quentin Durward), cared little for the Louvre. He had a complete contempt for all palaces and all the trappings of royalty.

The next king concerned with the extension of the palace was Francois I., the prince of the Renaissance who met Henry VIII. on the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and was his rival as patron of the new learning. Francois brought Benvenuto Cellini from Italy to Paris and lodged him in the Tour de Nesle, that he might suggest embellishments to the Louvre. But it was pulling down rather than building with which Frangois was concerned. He was an attractive democratic king, the friend of poets and artists-Ronsard’s father was his maitre d’hotel – greatly beloved by his daughter-in-law, Catherine de Medicis, when she arrived. at the French Court, very young and very timid. ” All is lost save honour,” Francois is said to have exclaimed when the defeat at Pavia brought his blundering Italian campaign to an end. It is sad to be obliged to add that he was by no means so epigrammatic. He actually wrote to his mother: ” Of all things nothing remains to me but honour and life, which is safe.”

The Louvre was the scene of the tragedy of St. Bartholomew. Charles IX. was the second son of Catherine de Medicis to be King of France, and despite St. Bartholo mew’s Eve the only one of her sons who excites pity and not contempt. He was a puny man, with a crooked neck and a prematurely wrinkled face, but he had notably beautiful eyes. He had none of the vices of his brothers. He was a sensitive, impressionable, melancholy man of good intentions. He loved music and poetry, and Ronsard was his friend.

Ronsard was essentially a Court poet. It is to the credit of the later Valois-there is not too much to their creditthat they appreciated and encouraged the genius of the seven stars of the Pleiade, the poets of whom Ronsard was by far the greatest, who set out to make French poetry as great as that of Greece and Rome. Ronsard was the first modern French poet. He was essentially national in imagination and expression, and kings and princes made life easy for him. He had apartments at the Louvre. He received a handsome income from many abbeys and priories. And it is curious that in an age of murder and sudden death, and in a palace atmosphere teeming with intrigueit seems probable that Ronsard was at the Louvre on the eve of St. Bartholomew-he should have written such delicious poetry as his :

Mignonne, allons voir si la Rose,

Qui ce matin avait desclose

Sa robe de pourpre au soleil,

A point perdu cette vespree

Les plis de sa robe pourpree

Et son teint au vostre pareil.

Las ! voyez comme en peu d’espace,

Mignonne, elle a dessus la place,

Las, las, ses beautez laisse cheoir !

O vraiment maratre Nature,

Puisqu’une telle fleur ne dure

Que du matin jusques au soir.

Done, si vous me croyez, Mignonne,

Tandis que votre age fleuronne

En sa plus verte nouveaute,

Cueillez, cueillez votre jeunesse ;

Comme a cette fleur, la vieillesse

Fera ternir votre beaute.

Charles, the friend of Ronsard and himself, as Mr. Saintsbury testifies, no bad poet, sanctioned the massacre of St. Bartholomew, for Charles the Well Intentioned was also Charles the Mad. Generally he was quiet, orderly and domestic, carefully making entries in his account books that supply interesting details of everyday life in the Louvre in the sixteenth century, as, for example : ” Ten livres for washing the pages’ heads and sponging their hair.” But often he suffered from fits of insane frenzy, and he lived in terrified subjection to his mother, now grown very fat but still a ” great eater of all things indifferently.”

In September 1571 the great Admiral Coligny, the leader of the Huguenots, arrived at the Louvre. The young King loved the old man. He talked to him of a France with great colonial possessions filched from the Spanish in South America. He told him of a plan for incorporating half the Protestant Netherlands into the Valois kingdom. The King was fascinated. And Catherine grew jealous, the Guises, always a turbulent family, feeling political power slipping from them, grew apprehensive, and Paris, that had no love for Protestants, grew angry. Coligny talked, and Catherine sat in her apartments in the Louvre, waiting and plotting. She was no religious fanatic. Like Elizabeth she used religions as political pawns in the game of maintaining personal power. That was her one and constant end. At this time she was eager to marry her daughter, Marguerite, to Henri of Navarre, and she was entirely unaffected by the fact that Marguerite sulked and wept, and that her love for the handsome Henri de Guise was notorious to the whole Court. Protestant Navarre must be joined to Catholic France in order to make the Spanish frontier safe. Henri’s mother, the stern Puritan, Jeanne d’Albret, came to Paris much against her will-a wonderful lady, pious, intellectual, uncomfortably outspoken. She arrived in May, and died in June. The Louvre was an unhealthy place in the days of Catherine de Medicis, but there seems no reason to suppose that Queen Jeanne was murdered.

The massacre of St. Bartholomew was the result of religious fanaticism, deliberately inflamed for political purposes. Catherine, probably wisely, was opposed to Coligny’s policy of an alliance with the Prince of Orange against Spain, and it seemed to her that the best way to deal with a political enemy was to kill him. The Huguenots, too, a small well-to-do, lawless community, were a constant source of difficulty and trouble. ” Every northern pirate,” says Miss Sichel, ” could call himself a Protestant and find a home in all-embracing La Rochelle.” Moreover, Catherine realised that if the Huguenots were not broken, a cruel war between Coligny and the Guises would bring misery to France and would seriously weaken the power of the throne. So the massacre was planned.

Meanwhile, Paris was filling for the marriage of Marguerite and Henri, Huguenots and followers of the Due de Guise pouring into the city, while shopkeepers shut up their shops, and sober citizens anticipated trouble. The marriage took place on August 18, 1572, Marguerite kneeling at the nuptial mass in Notre-Dame while her Protestant husband paced up and down with Coligny in the courtyard. On the 22nd, Coligny was fired at and wounded. King Charles was furiously indignant, and the Huguenots, believing in his power to protect them, grew more confident and assured. Then in the streets of Paris and in the passages of the Louvre there were whispers of a great Protestant conspiracy against the lives of the Queen Mother and her sons. There was probably little enough in these rumours, but they served Catherine’s purpose. She reported the rumours to the King, assuring him that his life was in danger, that Coligny was a traitor, that he must either kill the Protestants or they would kill him, and at last she had her way. The kindly King disappeared, and the mad King appeared with foam on his mouth shouting, ” You have willed it, well then, kill them all, kill them all ! ”

Catherine had prepared and she quietly awaited events at the hour of her coucher, with her two daughters sitting together on a coffer, pale-faced and terrified, and occa sionally bursting into tears-and then the bells of St. Germain 1’Auxerrois sounded, and the massacre began. Two thousand Huguenots, Coligny among them, were done to death, a fearful enough total, but a small thing indeed compared to the massacres of Christians that have taken place in Russia and Asia Minor since the War, and against which western Europe has hardly made a protest. From the windows of the Louvre the Queen Mother and her ladies watched the killing with eager interest, but the Queen, a gentle pious Catholic, knelt in prayer for her husband who had been compelled into crime : ” My God, I entreat, I demand of Thee that Thou wilt mercifully forgive him, for if Thou hast not pity upon him I fear that this sin will be pardoned by none else ! ”

Charles died three years after the massacre. His last words were : ” I rejoice that I leave no male child to wear the crown after me.”

The bells of St. Germain 1’Auxerrois which gave the signal for the beginning of the St. Bartholomew killing were always tolled at royal funerals. They are still the finest bells in the city. St. Germain of Auxerrois was a Burgundian prince who, ” realising his vocation, gave all his riches to the poor people and changed his wife into his sister,” thereafter performing many miracles and attaining a great reputation for his saintliness. The church began as a small oratory, built in the sixth century, and it became the church to which the citizens of Paris generally sent their children for baptism. In the time of Charlemagne a school grew up in connection with the church which gave its name to the adjacent Rue de 1’Ecole. Most of the present church belongs to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, marred by the vandalism of the later eighteenth century.

Its proximity to the Louvre and the Tuileries made St. Germain 1’Auxerrois with St. Roch the churches of the French kings and queens. Marie Antoinette went regularly to mass at St. Germain’s, where her prie-dieu may still be seen, and it was a priest from the church, ” a constitutional priest in lay dress,” who was with her, ” a wan, discrowned widow of thirty-eight,” when she was taken from the Palais de Justice to the Place de la Revolution.

In the short-lived atheistic frenzy of the Revolution, St. Germain’s lost much of its old stained glass, some of which, however, remains to show how much more beautiful ancient glass is than modern. During the revolutionary troubles that drove the Bourbons from France and made Louis Philippe the Citizen King, the church was attacked by a mob who did considerable damage, despite Victor Hugo’s assurance that ” la population de Paris s’est admirablement conduite pendant le combat et apres la victoire.” The statue of the Virgin was discovered undamaged among the debris. It now stands in the well-named Chapelle Notre Dame de Bonne Garde.

The Louvre was the scene of almost inconceivable follies after the death of Charles IX. and during the reign of Henri III.-a coward and a poltroon, fond of nursing lap dogs, who blazoned death’s-heads all over his clothes and on his shoe-strings in sign of mourning for his mistress. One evening the King gave a banquet at which all the guests, dressed in green, were waited on by ladies in men’s clothes of the same colour. This cost him sixty thousand francs. On another night a number of Italians won thirty thousand crowns off him at play. The King lodged alchemists in the palace and then, as an antidote, read himself to sleep every night with Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Among the many tasks to which the vigorous Henri of Navarre set his hand was the rebuilding of Paris, which, during the Valois era, was little more than ” a sea of squalid houses round a few isolated palaces or churches of superb architecture.” He added greatly to the Louvre, building the gallery which joined the palace to the Tuileries, which had then only just been completed. He was a great man and a gallant. ” When I am gone,” he said shortly before his death, ” you will know what you have lost,” and after his assassination by Ravaillac in 1610, France indeed discovered that she had lost a King.

Richelieu, in so many ways the heir of Henri IV., was another great builder, and he too added to the Louvre before building his own Palais-Cardinal. It was in the Louvre that the great Cardinal intrigued against Anne of Austria. It was in the Louvre that d’Artagnan and the three musketeers were received by Louis XIII. ” When M. d’Artagnan is on duty he is to be found at the Louvre.” It was the Louvre that until the accession of Louis XIV. was the home of the French kings and the scene of persistent picturesque intrigues. Colbert, the minister of Louis XIV., who invented protective tariffs, carried on the grandiose plans of Henri IV. and Richelieu, but at his death the Louvre ceased to be a royal residence. Louis XIV. hated living in Paris and built the palace of Versailles which, as Mr. Belloc says somewhere, was destined to be the graveyard of the French monarchy. In 1670, 1,627,293 livres were spent on the Louvre. In 1680 the subsidy had entirely ceased, and it was not until 1754 that anything further was done to the great building which, during the interregnum had become a sort of glorified lodging-house, its inmates including the hangers-on of the Court, poor artists, and defaulting debtors. A king of Denmark who visited the Louvre in 1678 has left an epigrammatic description of the palace :

J’ai vu le Louvre et son enceinte immense,

Vaste palais qui depuis deux cent ans

Toujours s’achove et toujours se commence.

Deux ouvriers, manoeuvres faineants,

Hatent tres lentement ces riches batiments

Et sont payes, quand on y pense.

On October 24, 1658, Moliere and his company gave a performance of Corneille’s tragedy Nicomede at the Louvre before Louis XIV. and his Court. Moliere had started his career as a theatrical manager fourteen years before with a Paris season that had been an entire failure. For twelve years he had been touring the provinces, going from town to town on horseback or on foot, wandering all over France, making influential friends like the Prince de Conti, saving money and establishing a considerable reputation. It was through the King’s brother that the performance was given at the Louvre ” to the Queen Mother and to the King.” After the performance Moliere, a stately, attractive figure with large mouth, full lips, swarthy complexion and bushy eyebrows, addressed the King in well-turned phrases, and captured the heart of the audience, which included the great Mazarin. So complete was the conquest that the Petit Bourbon, which communicated with the Louvre by a gallery, was put at his disposal, and there he produced his L’Etourdi, and in the autumn of 1659 Les Precieuses Ridicules. Moliere stayed in the Louvre until the Petit Bourbon was pulled down, when his company moved over to the Palais-Royal.

In 1662 Moliere, then a man of forty, was married at the Louvre’s church, St. Germain L’Auxerrois, to Armande Bejard, a girl of nineteen. The marriage was not a success. Armande was a brilliant woman with a cold, hard temperament, the original of Celimene in her husband’s great comedy, Le Misanthrope.

After the Revolution the National Convention decided that the Louvre should become the National Museum. In 1794 the Petite Galerie was used as a bourse. The artistic treasures filched by Napoleon during his campaign in Italy were installed by the Directory in the galleries of the Louvre, and in 1802, when he was First Consul, Napoleon; anticipating the Prince Consort, held an industrial exhibition there. Ten years later, such is the irony of history, special apartments were prepared in the Louvre for the entertainment of the foreign sovereigns who were expected to come to Paris after the successful termination of the campaign in Russia.

Nowadays the palace of Dumas and the Valois houses the finest collection of pictures in northern Europe-” Monna Lisa ” (La Joconde), with the mystic smile, masterpieces of Raphael, Titian, Velasquez, Veronese, Botticelli, Murillo, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and all the great masters. It was Francois I. who began the collection by buying, while he was in Italy, “Monna Lisa” from Leonardo da Vinci for a sum which in our money would be twenty thousand pounds.