History of the Louvre
Part 3 of 5: The Renaissance

Skip to:

Excerpted from the book
The Louvre

by Alexandra Bonfante-Warren

The embodiment of the French Renaissance, and one of the first European collectors in the modern sense, was Francis I of the house of Valois, whose paintings, many by the celebrated Clouets, father and son, would form one of the core holdings of the Louvre museum. Born in 1494, Francis ascended the throne against all odds as a confident twenty-one-year-old in 1515. Niccolò Machiavelli, who visited France on several diplomatic missions during the reign of Louis XII, just before Francis's ascension, marveled at the country's great wealth (the Florentine also remarked, a shade wistfully, that the people were so meek they barely required governance). Much of the country's riches were consumed, however, in almost constant warfare, often in forays against the Holy Roman Empire, and in purchasing art objects. Francis was what would be later called a connoisseur and an amateur--an expert and passionate lover and patron of literature, painting, sculpture, decorative domestic objects, and architecture, though he was notorious for his lack of tact. He was also fond of lavish display--it would be ten years before the royal treasury recovered from the 1520 three-week celebrations at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in honor of Henry VIII, who should have been the host, since he held the region at the time.

In the fifteenth century, the fertile exchanges of technique and conceptual approach between the northern European schools of painting, especially the Flemish and German, and the central Italian, had concluded with the triumph of the Italians. The year after Francis became king, he called Leonardo da Vinci to his court at Amboise, on the Loire. Granted the former royal manor at Cloux, near the current royal residence, Leonardo was given the titles "first painter" and "engineer and architect of the king." Most everyone (including, in a matter-of-fact way, Leonardo himself) agreed that Leonardo was one of the geniuses of his day. At Amboise, Leonardo designed marvels such as a mechanical lion for the entertainment of the court, but also painted The Virgin of the Rocks and Saint Anne and the Virgin, two of his greatest works. So great was the king's love for his "first painter" that tradition has put Francis at Leonardo's side when the artist died in 1519. Following Leonardo's death, Francis bought several of the artist's Italian paintings.

Leonardo was the most famous of Francis's artists, but close behind him were Andrea del Sarto, Titian, and Primaticcio, as well as the brilliant and excitable goldsmith, sculptor, and two-time murderer Benvenuto Cellini, who was in the king's service twice, between criminal escapades. The king collected works by Sebastiano del Piombo and by Raphael, setting a precedent for subsequent Valois monarchs who collected drawings as well, especially illuminated manuscripts and portraits. (These would be kept in the Bibliothèque Royale until 1671, when Louis XIV absorbed drawings into the royal collections.)

As Machiavelli had noted, France was still in some ways feudal, with the barons wielding much power. Though the kings, their courts, and households no longer traveled around the country consuming their vassals' tribute, usually in kind, on site, a royal circuit allowed the reigning sovereign to keep an eye on possible sources of rebellion, and to impress his subjects firsthand with his armed authority. Francis and his magnificent entourage journeyed from palace to palace; at first Francis favored the Loire Valley: besides Amboise, he enjoyed Blois and Chambord, where he built a château.

Later, he would spend more time closer to Paris, at Villers-Cotterets and at the legendary château of Fontainebleau, once a royal retreat, today the summer residence of France's presidents. There, Francis not only kept his own cabinet of paintings but also encouraged a school of easel painting; three hundred years later, another school, the Barbizon painters, would take their easels to the region. The first recorded use of the word "cabinet" dates to 1525. Originally describing a small room apart, the cabinet--a cousin of the studioli of such erudite members of the Italian nobility as Federico di Montefeltro and Isabella d'Este--came to be a room in which a collection of similar objects, of artistic or scientific interest, were housed. As such, it was one of the forerunners of today's museums.

In 1528, when Francis determined to have a proper palace in Paris, Charles V's fairy-tale castle, which had been virtually abandoned for one hundred fifty years, was in a sorry state. Where Charles had buttressed his show of assurance by retaining Philip Augustus's keep, Francis saw the Grosse Tour as an outmoded excrescense, and perhaps an unhappy reminder as well: Francis himself had been a prisoner in Pavia just two years earlier. The razing of the tower marked the passage of the Louvre into its second stage of existence, as a royal residence, no longer a defensive castle. Yet the keep did not go unmourned--an observer commented that it was "a pity" to raze the tower, "for it was very beautiful, high, and strong, and well suited to imprison men of great renown."

The decision to make the long-disregarded royal house a regal home was largely political: as the leaders of France have always either known or had to learn, no head of state can afford to neglect Paris. After tearing down Philip Augustus's keep, Francis had the royal apartments redecorated. One of the king's great talents was for recognizing it in others, and his taste in architecture was in no way inferior to his eye for painting, sculpture, and household objets. In 1546, the monarch, now in his early fifties, selected the painter and architect Pierre Lescot to undertake the design of the new palace, in conjunction with Jean Goujon, a remarkable sculptor who had studied with Michelangelo. Francis died the following year, but Lescot continued his work through three more reigns, until his own death in 1578.

Lescot's graceful, almost playful façades set the tone for the palace for the next four centuries, with some intriguing exceptions. In the Italian fashion, female figures--nymphs and goddesses, nude or inadequately draped--cavort, consult, and reflect but clearly dominate the decoration of the court, albeit idealized and abstracted into allegories and classical divinities. In the Cour Napoléon, though female allegorical sculptures adorn the pediments, the figures that line the upper stories are sternly vertical historical males, all, whether in toga or breeches, resolutely dressed.

Prophecy, sorcery, and the Wars of Religion haunted the reigns of the last Valois kings. Henry II, Francis's second son, who rebuilt the south wing of the Louvre and commissioned the stately, stylish grandeur of the Salle des Caryatides, was married to Catherine de Médicis, a daughter of the powerful Florentine merchant and banking family, when they were both scarcely more than children. Within a few years of his marriage, Henry fell in love with Diane de Poitiers, twenty years his senior; she would openly be his mistress and political adviser for the rest of his life. Diane's sway over the king and her legendary beauty, unmarred by the passing decades, were naturally ascribed to sorcery. Gossip, however, credited the king and queen's ten children, three of whom succeeded to the throne, to Diane's practical-minded promptings.

The king and his lover shared a passion for hunting, and any references, however oblique, in any medium, to the sport or to Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, are a tribute to Diane de Poitiers. The royal palaces, including the court façade of Henry's rebuilt west wing of the Louvre, display a curious example of the Renaissance love for codes. The vertical bars of the king's initials are entwined with the queen's own initials, backward on the left, forward on the right; however, the letter C is the shape of the crescent moon, sacred to the goddess Diana, and the crossed royal ciphers form the letter D. In 1559, when the point of a lance crashed through the visor of Henry's golden helmet and into his eye during a tournament, the despairing queen abruptly recalled two predictions of the tragic event, one of them a rhymed quatrain by Michael de Notre-Dame, better known as Nostradamus, foretelling the cruel death of a lion, his eyes gouged out in a "golden cage."

With the Reformation, religion became the sword that divided the nations of Europe bitterly and bloodily. The Huguenots, as the French Calvinists were called, included important families of the nobility. In 1560, the year after Catherine became regent for her eldest son, the short-lived Francis II, the Huguenots rallied to overthrow the Catholic royal faction; the Crown's repression was instantaneous and brutal. In 1562-63 and 1567-68, now regent for her second son, Charles IX, the Queen Mother passed edicts intended to end the fratricidal Wars of Religion. Despite Catherine's every effort, civil war became the plague of the age--in 1562, Jean Goujon, a Protestant, left the country.

In the meantime, the royal renovations proceeded apace. In 1563, desiring a château of her own, a retreat far, but not too far, from court, the Queen Mother commissioned a palace to be built on the site of the tile factories--in French, les tuileries--just outside the city walls; the gardens in the Italian manner would set the style for French landscaping. In addition, in 1566, Catherine directed that a hall, the Petite Galerie, be built closing off the garden between the southern wing of the Louvre, which now housed her apartments, and the river wall.

Seeking to negotiate peace between the religious factions, in 1572 Catherine married her daughter Margaret of Valois to a young leader of the Huguenots, Henry, king of Navarre. Five days after the wedding, in the night between August 23 and 24--the eve of Saint Bartholomew's Day--the bells of Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois, the royal parish church, gave the signal to begin the massacre of the Huguenots. The carnage raged for five days, with the bridegroom held prisoner in the Louvre. (He would remain a virtual prisoner for the next four years.) Members of the royal court, including a close adviser of the king himself, were herded into the Cour du Louvre and mowed down with crossbows and harquebuses. Some escaped into the Louvre, only to be so butchered that "the walls were purple with blood . . . and the stairs ran red till nightfall." Blood was said to have spattered the new bride's bedroom.

Pope Gregory XIII and the Catholic sovereigns of Europe openly congratulated Catherine for ordering the slaughter, its timing apparently precipitated by the king's growing sympathy for the Protestants. As hideous as the massacre was, it was clearly the exasperated recourse of an imperious temperament. But it was more: Catherine, a daughter of the great Medici dynasty, was bred to do her duty to family and country--at all costs. And the costs were gruesome. Estimates of the number dead in Paris and throughout France reach as high as fifty thousand, but the near-annihilation of the opposition did not eliminate the problem. The Wars of Religion continued for another quarter-century, taking the lives of the next two kings of France.

Charles's successor in 1574 was Henry III, a tormented soul whose tenure at the Louvre was interrupted by civil war. Sexually ambiguous and deeply devoted to his wife, the "little queen" Louise de Lorraine, the king was given to nightmares. One morning, waking terrified from a dream in which he was being savaged by wild beasts, he ordered the palace's crossbowmen to kill the royal lions who lived in the Louvre's moat. In 1588, forced to flee Paris, Henry III left the Louvre to the Paris League, who hanged sixteen men in Henry II's great hall, one of a seemingly endless series of executions and reprisals in that century of carnage. The following January, Catherine died at Blois; Henry III was murdered by a monk six months later.

  
Marie de Medicis
 
Portrait of Marie de Médicis, by Peter Paul Rubens
 

Henry, king of Navarre, also known as Henry de Bourbon, saved himself during the week of Saint Bartholomew's by embracing Catholicism; as King Henry IV, he would do so again to claim the Paris he had won on the battlefield, his pragmatism embodied in his remark "Paris is well worth a mass." By 1600, when he married his second wife, Marie de Médicis, Henry IV had brought a hard-won peace and with it the chance for prosperity to a realm devastated by the cruel war at home. Henry's road to the throne and his expedition of explorers to the New World proved him a man of vision. With the aid of the remarkable duc de Sully, for whom the Louvre's central pavilion is named, the Bourbon king designed programs for the economic restructuring of the nation and the urban restructuring of its capital. Similarly, Henry had a Grand Plan for the royal palace--at the time ofhis accession, neither Francis's Louvre nor Catherine's Tuileries Palace nor her Petite Galerie was finished. He genuinely loved his capital, and his architectural program for the Louvre was also a tribute to the city he had won at great sacrifice.

Henry's plan called for quadrupling the areas of both the Cour Carrée and the palace itself, and creating a series of quadrangles that would unify the Louvre and the Tuileries. In his lifetime, he achieved Charels IX's vision of a gallery along the Seine that would join the two palaces--the Grande Galerie. Henry also had Lescot's façade completed and a second floor added to the Petite Galerie; this second floor was dedicated to a gallery of royal portraits beginning with that of Saint Louis. (In addition, the ever practical Henry planted mulberry trees outside the north wall. These fed the silkworms that in turn nourished France's flourishing textile industry.)

The king was equally down-to-earth in assigning space in the new areas of the palace. In traditional urban architecture, the ground floors of buildings and the mezzanines below were often given over to shops and workshops, and the Grande Galerie, in a royal kind of way, followed convention. Sponsored by the Crown, a crowd of artists and artisans--still, despite Leonardo, a relatively hazy distinction--lived and worked in the tunnel-like halls below the grand étage. "Painters, sculptors, printmakers, . . . goldsmiths, furnituremakers, clockmakers," tapestry makers, and the Mint inhabited the Grande Galerie below stairs.

Henry was an amateur; like Francis I, he was particularly fond of Classical sculpture, and his collection would join that of the Valois king in the Louvre's museum. The tradition of a royal menagerie in the palace continued too, after Henry III's panicked slaughter: the dauphin, the future Louis XIII, liked to walk his camel up and down the quarter mile of the riverside gallery. The young prince also loved his more modest zoo, made up, not of exotic gifts from distant potentates, but of woodland creatures from the surrounding countryside.

For the rest, the royal palace was the scene of boisterous entertainments for the court, which included the ballet of the time--these might feature not only members of the nobility, but sometimes even Henry himself--as well as spectacles carried over from the time of Francis I and Leonardo, and earlier still. Pageants and tableaux, elephants and a din of musicians, began at midnight and crashed on until dawn. The larger-than-life Henry was nothing if not energetic: known to have had fifty-four official mistresses, in his fifties he was dubbed le Vert Galant--roughly, "the sexy old dog."

The festival was suddenly stilled on May 14, 1610. Henry IV, who in 1598 had passed the Edict of Nantes permitting some measure of freedom of religion, was assassinated by a religious fanatic. The courtyard of the Louvre was draped in black velvet, and a wax effigy of the late king lay in state in the Salle des Caryatides for eleven days, during which his meals continued to be brought to him in the mourning hall, where silk-clad courtiers now speculated in worried whispers about the next king's reign. Five years later, Henry's first wife, the good-natured and cultivated Margaret of Valois, would die, financially ruined; the Musée d'Orsay stands on what was once her estate.

The old king was dead; the young king was nine years old, and his mother, the forceful Marie de Médicis, like Catherine, a daughter of the powerful Florentine dynasty, would rule France as regent for seven years. Beginning in 1612, she undertook construction of a country domain: the Luxembourg palace and gardens, across the Seine from the Louvre. Apparently, that was not remote enough; one of Louis XIII's first acts upon reaching his majority in 1617 was to send his mother into polite exile at Blois. Marie had no intention of going quietly, and by 1622 she was on the king's council.

To mark the occasion, the Queen Mother commissioned Peter Paul Rubens to paint for the Luxembourg Palace a cycle of paintings between 1622 and 1625. The contract called for all twenty-four paintings--over three hundred square yards of canvas--to be entirely and exclusively by the master's hand. This staggering, hallucinatory Baroque extravaganza, today in the Louvre's Galerie Médicis, begins with portraits of her parents and goes on to detail episodes from Marie's life, including her coronation (Margaret had been merely queen consort) and her political, military, and maternal achievements. Throughout, the queen is accompanied by Jupiter and an uncharacteristically clinging Juno, angels, putti, the Three Graces, and various other classical figures. Baroque excess had met its match in a Medici queen.

War, royal circuits, and the charms of hunting, the countryside, and lovers had long taken the French monarchs away from the Louvre. In 1627, however, Louis XIII began construction on the Paris palace's greatest rival. The king's architect, Jacques Lemercier, who three years earlier had taken over the project of expanding the Cour Carrée and the building of the Pavilion de L'Horloge (the Clock Pavilion, which still displays its tiny dial), was now given the assignment of designing a royal hunting lodge some ten miles from Paris, an easy day's journey from the capital. Within a few years, work on the Louvre would be virtually at a standstill.

Versailles became the king's home, although the Louvre remained unequivocally he royal palace: the queen, Anne of Austria, lived there, and Louis had his apartments there, including an aviary and a series of workrooms for the earnest artisan-king, who found sober satisfaction in his "forge, gun-room, printing press, and carpenter's shop." Like his father, Louis supported the ballet, but even more enthusiastically, going so far as to write music for one. The spectacles, which might last all night, were performed on the second floor of the Grande Galerie--twice as long then as it is today--for invited audiences of sometimes four thousand. The crush was at times life-threatening, at times life-engendering, providing as it did on occasion for great, if discreet, familiarity.

This same hall, where today the Louvre's Italian masterpieces hang, was the scene of an archaic royal ritual revived by Louis XIII: the cérémonie des écrouelles. Scrofula--tuberculosis of the lymph glands of the neck--an illness that produces particularly unattractive abcesses, was traditionally known as the King's Evil, because on certain occasions the reigning monarch was believed to be able to cure this ugly affliction. In part a ritualized gesture of humility, similar to the medieval saints' penchant for treating repugnant diseases of the skin, it was also a clear affirmation of the king's divine right to rule.

In the late 1630s, work on the Louvre resumedwith international fanfare when Louis XIII summoned Nicolas Poussin to Paris. Poussin, one of France's and the century's great painters, had been working for high-ranking prelates in Rome, where he had executed paintings for Saint Peter's Basilica. In addition, he had done a series of four paintings, the Bacchanalia, for Cardinal Richelieu, an advisor to Marie de Médicis, and the most powerful man in France--not excluding the king. Like his successor, Cardinal Mazarin, Richelieu was a collector; his testament expressed the curious desire that his collection be open to the public. His unprecedently democratic dictates went unheeded, but many of his artworks eventually reached the Louvre, so that in time his wish came true.

Now, in the early 1640s, Poussin was to be superintendent of the royal residences, no less a title than he felt he deserved. For the great ceiling of the Grande Galerie, a massive undertaking, Poussin began, but did not complete, an epic program, The Labors of Hercules, in the Classical style for which he was celebrated. No polital naif--he had, after all, been working in the highest ecclesiastical circles in Rome--Nicolas Poussin nevertheless was no match for the situation he encountered in Paris. All his life he had focused on his art, often at the expense of public honors; whatever the origin of his attitude might have been, he neither worked nor played well with others at the French court. His open disdain for his colleagues merely added fuel to the chronic intrigues around the king, and in the end, exhausted, frustrated, and disgusted, Poussin soon returned to the relative peace of the Vatican.

Continue to Part 4:
The Revolution --->

Return to The Louvre (the book),
or to the HLLA Reference Library.

© 2000 Hugh Lauter Levin Associates. All rights reserved.