History of the Louvre
Part 2 of 5: The Middle Ages

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Excerpted from the book
The Louvre

by Alexandra Bonfante-Warren

At the turn of the thirteenth century, the Capetian warrior king Philip Augustus was trying both to wrest several northern French provinces from King John Plantagenet of England, the treacherous brother of Richard the Lionhearted, and to safeguard the Île-de-France, the region of which Paris was the capital. On the western side of the city's fortifications, facing the Plantagenet holdings, the French king erected a moated castle with towers on a site called the Louvre; the castle walls surrounded a moated circular keep, the Great Tower, one hundred feet (31 m) high, one of the architectural wonders of the age. Within the stone enclosure, buildings lined the west wall and the Seine wall on the south. this arrangement effectively protected Philip Augustus from foreign enemies to the west and disgruntled subjects to the east; it became the model for military defenses throughout the gradually unified kingdom, and the subject of ballads and popular tales.

The answer to the riddle of the name of the site of Philip Augustus's castle is lost in the remote past--or, it may not be mysterious at all. The proposed etymologies are more imaginative than likely, expressing a desire to extend France even farther back in time, to a fortress inhabited by Charlemagne, or a Saxon tower defending against the invading Northmen. Some suggestions for the origin of lovre or louvre in French (lupara or lupera in Latin) are rubra, "red place," a reference to the color of the local sand, and rouvre, "oak tree." Both these possibilities, though, are based on a nonexistent consonant shift. More colorful, but equally unsubstantiated, are references to a leprosarium or to a luperia, a kennel dedicated to the wolf hunt. In the end, the most probable--and not the least evocative--origin is simply loup, "wolf," a reminder of the wild woods of early Europe. Today, not oak trees, but orderly rows of chestnuts line the Seine along the Quai des Tuileries, and radiate west from the Carrousel.

Philip's tower, like the Tower of London, was multipurpose. The archives and treasury of the Crown were kept there, as were the king's enemies. Philip, however, lived elsewhere, in his presumably more comfortable palace on the nearby Île de la Cité. Man of war though he was, Philip Augustus, also known as Philip II, granted its charter to the University of Paris, the first such institution the world had ever seen. And, in the tradition of monarchs the world over, he was a patron of the arts and of architecture, principally through the many churches he built.

Philip Augustus's grandson, Louis IX--the future Saint Louis--a Crusader like his ancestor, gained by treaty the Plantagenet lands for which his grandfather had battled. Louis also collected manuscripts in a modest way, creating the foundation for the great library of Charles V a century later. The war at home largely over, Louis converted the west wing of the Louvre into a formal audience hall, where justice was dispensed and important personages received. Solemn state receptions came to be held at the castle, as well as the colorful and fatal tournaments that the Church condemned.

Under the pious Louis IX and his visionary and merciless grandson Philip the Fair, Paris mushroomed; in 1328, when the first Valois king, Philip VI, ascended the throne, the city, with about one hundred thousand residents, was the most populous in Europe; the plague that swept westward out of central Asia twenty years later would halve the city's number. In the countryside, the diminished population was somewhat better off after the pestilence passed, but the French monarchs would increasingly need to maintain a presence in Paris, lest one of the frequent urban uprisings, coupled with the constant threat from England, topple a reigning sovereign.

In 1356, when King John the Good was taken prisoner by the English at Poitiers, the dauphin, Charles V, later called "the Learnèd," became regent. Two years later, when Étienne Marcel, provost of the merchants of Paris, led a rebellion in the name of the people, Charles found the Louvre as useful as his forebears had. With a substantial force of men-at-arms garrisoned there, at his back, as it were, Charles addressed the people and swayed the heated crowd. Despite the swing in popular opinion, Marcel and his men broke into the Louvre and slaughtered two of the royal advisers before Charles's very eyes. Although regicide would become a violent fact of French royal life, at the time even the possibility amounted to sacrilege. After Charles's partisans murdered Marcel, Charles pressed his advantage with a grimly effective armed repression of a peasant rebellion.

The dauphin's victory affirmed the king's absolute authority--at least for the time being. Upon his accession, Charles began to turn the fortress of the Louvre into a regal, yet pretty palace, an aesthetic statement bespeaking the king's serene self-assurance. At the same time, he extended the city walls westward, and had a moat dug alongside, so that the Louvre was now within the city.

The poet, priest, and diplomat Petrarch described the dauphin Charles as "a young man of ardent intelligence." As a grown man, Charles was also known for his great piety, the orderliness of his private as well as public life, and the luxurious tastes he satisfied with splendid reliquaries and other religious objects that he commissioned. He was studious: his rich library of 973 manuscripts, on subjects from classical literature to magic and botany, would form the core of the future Bibliothèque de France. He was also one of the new breed of monarchs; a statesman as much as a soldier, Charles knew very well that he must impress his peers with his majesty, and that meant splendor and pomp. And not only his fellow monarchs. Having repressed his subjects by force, he was as aware as his impreial Roman predecessors that, even more than fed, the people must be awed.

Charles, who also built the Bastille, transformed much of Philip Augustus's Louvre into a splendid royal residence. The king's architect, Raymond du Temple, remembered in the name of a nearby street, renovated the original buildings and constructed wings on the north and east, so that there were now halls against all four walls. The new wings were reached by a spiral staircase that was much admired in its day, and decorated with statues of the royal family. The term "fairy-tale" recurs in descriptions of this late-medieval fancy, a snow-white confection iced with shining ceramic tiles, spiky with graceful round turrets, and open to the world with a few actual windows, as well as Philip Augustus's narrow defensive fissures.

On a page of the Book of Hours of the duke of Berry--Charles's art-patron brother--the Louvre rises, courtly and bright, spanking new, benignly overlooking the plowing and sowing taking place across the Seine. The new Louvre, however, was still a walled castle, and it retained some of the functions of the old fortress, including the prison; the weapons room, where women fletched arrows; and, like a mailed fist in a silken glove, Philip Augustus's tower, grim and blind, at its center.

It was also a magnificent guest house for visiting dignitaries, such as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV and his retinue, who came to Paris in 1377. The emperor and his suite arrived at the Louvre by boat--an inadequate word for the floating palace that transported him to Charles's breathtaking new construction. Even the emperor was impressed to see the neatly laid-out gardens, Raymond du Temple's grand staircase, the frescoes, and the chapels, including the French king's private oratory, and the many windows. Gargoyles guarded the castle's turrets, while chimneys atop the high roofs told of fireplaces and residential comfort within. The royal menagerie brought the animals of the illuminated bestiaries to life. Although the territory of France was in the throes of almost constant warfare, Charles's Louvre stood for the ideal of a kingdom that was united and at peace.

Continue to Part 3:
The Renaissance --->

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