Medieval, Renaissance, and Bourbon palace
The Louvre Palace (Palais du Louvre) which houses the museum was begun as a fortress by Philip II in the 12th century, with remnants of this building still visible in the crypt. It is not known if this was the first building on that spot, but it is possible that Philip modified an existing tower. The etymology of the name Louvre is also uncertain: it may refer to the structure’s status as the largest in late 12th century Paris (from the French L’Œuvre, masterpiece), its location in a forest (from the French rouvre, oak), or, according to Larousse, a wolf-hunting den (via Latin: lupus, lower Empire: lupara).
The Louvre Palace was altered frequently throughout the Middle Ages. In the 14th century, Charles V converted the building into a residence and in 1546, Francis I renovated the site in French Renaissance style. Francis acquired what would become the nucleus of the Louvre’s holdings, his acquisitions including Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. After Louis XIV chose Versailles as his residence in 1682, constructions slowed; however, the move permitted the Louvre to be used as a residence for artists.
By the mid-18th century there were an increasing number of proposals to create a public gallery with Lafont Saint-Yenne publishing, in 1747, a call for the royal collection’s display. In 1750, Louis XV agreed and sanctioned the display of some of the royal collection in the Louvre. A hall was opened for public viewing on Wednesdays and Saturdays and contained Andrea del Sarto’s Charity and works by Raphael. Under Louis XVI, the royal museum idea became policy. The comte d’Angiviller broadened the collection and in 1776 proposed conversion of the Grande Galerie—which contained maps—into the “French Museum”. Many proposals were offered for the Louvre’s renovation into a museum, however none was agreed on. Hence the museum remained incomplete until the French Revolution.
During the French Revolution the Louvre was transformed into a public museum. In May 1791, the Assembly declared that the Louvre would be, “a place for bringing together monuments of all the sciences and arts”. On 10 August 1792, Louis XVI was imprisoned and the royal collection in the Louvre became national property. Because of fear of vandalism or theft, on 19 August, the National Assembly pronounced the museum’s preparation as urgent. In October, a committee to “preserve the national memory” began assembling the collection for display.
The museum opened on 10 August 1793, the first anniversary of the monarchy’s demise. The public was given free access on three days per week, which was “perceived as a major accomplishment and was generally appreciated”. The collection showcased 537 paintings and 184 objects of art. Three quarters were derived from the royal collections, the remainder from confiscated émigrés and Church property (biens nationaux). To expand and organize the collection, the Republic dedicated 100,000 livres per year. In 1794, France’s revolutionary armies began bringing pieces from across Europe, such as Laocoön and His Sons and the Apollo Belvedere, to establish the Louvre as a museum and as a “sign of popular sovereignty”.
The early days were hectic; artists lived in residence, and the unlabelled paintings hung “frame to frame from floor to ceiling”. The building itself closed in May 1796 because of structural deficiencies. It reopened on 14 July 1801, arranged chronologically and with new lighting and columns.
Under Napoleon I, a northern wing paralleling the Grande Galerie was begun, and the collection grew through successful military campaigns. Following the Egyptian campaign of 1798–1801, Napoléon appointed the museum’s first director, Dominique Vivant Denon. In tribute, the museum was renamed the “Musée Napoléon” in 1803, and Spanish, Austrian, Dutch, and Italian works were acquired as spoils. After the French defeat at Waterloo, the former owners sought their return. The Louvre’s administrators were loath to comply and hid many works in their private collections. In response, foreign states sent emissaries to London to seek help, and many pieces were returned, even some that had been restored by the Louvre.