JAMES GARDNER The Louvre: The many lives of the world’s most famous museum. Reviewed by Ann Skea
James Gardner’s history of the Louvre includes emperors and architects, social and political upheaval, war and revolution – and great works of art.
Before the Louvre was a museum, it was a palace, and before that a fortress, and before that a plot of earth, much like any other… I emphasise the ‘placeness’ of the Louvre in part because everything about it today seems designed to reject and cover up its infinitely humble, elemental origins.
James Gardner’s account of the ‘many lives’ of the Louvre is a magisterial work, tracing the famous museum from its beginning as a small ugly medieval fortress just outside the walls of Paris to its present magnificent building at the heart of the city.
Gardner says from the start that his skills and training are those of ‘a cultural critic rather than a researcher in recondite fields’, so his story of the Louvre covers history, architecture, society and, especially, art. More than anything it deals with the people who created and lived in this great building – the kings and queens who inspired and constantly changed it; the emperors Napoleon and Napoleon III who developed and rebuilt it; and the ordinary and not-so-ordinary people who lived and worked in and around it.
Gardner tells his story well. He writes of the ‘hardness’ and ‘massiveness’ of the Louvre today ‘with its burnished railings and marble floors and gilded capitals that seem to repudiate human frailty’. But he writes, too, of the revolutions and destruction it has survived. Today’s visitors may remember the beautiful sculptures in the Salle des Caryatides, but few will imagine the three bodies which were hung from the rafters there in 1591. And few will think of the dead King Henry IV, who lay there in a lead coffin beneath an effigy:
… wearing a white satin pourpoint, or vest, a red velvet nightcap interwoven with cloth of gold… the many visitors who streamed past were encouraged to feel he had not died, but that he merely slept… To add to this verisimilitude two meals were set before the king’s effigy every day.
Gardner’s tracing of the Louvre’s history is thorough. So, too, are his detailed descriptions of the architecture and his accounts of the many changes to the building over the centuries. This can be a little dry at times, but the whole book is enlivened by his stories of the people involved, and by the lyricism with which he describes certain rooms.
Writing about the sculptures created by Jean Goujon, whose nineteenth-century statue ‘dressed in period attire’ looks down on the modern Pyramide where tourists now queue to enter the museum, he describes the oldest part of the building where:
Serene order reigns across the first two levels of Aisle Lescot, and its classical statues remain obediently in their niches, but at the attic level, where Goujon was given a freer hand, the figures writhe and gyrate more like frenzied dancers than those embodiments of peace and war, history and victory, and fame and the glory of the king that they are summoned to represent.
He describes the Salle des Caryatides as the ballroom it was in the 1500s, with its arched alcove in which the king would sit in state, the ‘masterpiece’ of a stairway (the Escalier Henri II) on the other side of the northern wall, and the caryatides that support a musicians’ gallery, which he finds:
… oddly armless figures. Their beauty is severe and otherworldly, and their draperies cling to them like cellophane, collecting in frenzied knots about the pelvis.
On the ceiling of Galerie d’Apollon, we can still see ‘an airborne ballet’. There, four ‘semi-naked’, sculpted Atlas figures, ‘flanked by lithe angels’, support escutcheons carved with ‘N’ for Napoleon III,
… while a motionless figure, inspired by the sibyls of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, sits in the midst of this ecstatic dance and surveys the spectacle with an air of sullen disapproval.
As with other architectural features and artworks that Gardner discusses, it is easy to find these images on the internet, which, as he notes in his Preface, are ‘in higher, crisper resolution than any printed book could achieve’. This comment of Gardner’s is apposite. There are a number of fine coloured plates in this book, but the black-and-white images are very poor.
There is so much that is fascinating and informative in this book. I was surprised to learn, for example, that a church dedicated to Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in his English cathedral in 1170, once stood on the land at the heart of the Louvre where IM Pei’s glass Pyramide now stands, and that this church probably predated the original fortress.
I was fascinated to read that Napoleon’s empress, Josephine, chose the Mona Lisa to hang beside her bed in the Tuileries Palace, which had been built close to the Louvre in 1599 by Catherine de Medicis, the powerful widow of Henry II. And that Marie Antoinette, escaping from the Tuileries during the 1789 revolution, got disastrously lost in the ramshackle buildings between it and the Louvre. Then there is the story of Gabrielle d’Estrées, who, at the age of sixteen, became the official mistress (maitresse-en-titre) of the philandering Henry IV, ‘le Vert Galant’. She bore him three children, ‘whom he officially recognised’, and her vexed relationship with his wife, Marguerite de Valois, eventually led to a divorce. (Wikipedia offers extra, delicious, detail about her life.)
Over the centuries, a number of architects produced plans to unite the Tuileries Palace with the Louvre, but it was not until the mid-1800s that the eminent architect Louis Visconti solved the problem of how to do this harmoniously. Much rebuilding then took place and on 14 August 1857, Napoleon III held a banquet for nearly five hundred construction workers in the Salle des États, which now houses the Mona Lisa. ‘The following day, the reborn museum formally opened its doors to the dazzled world.’ But on 23 May 1871, during the ‘Bloody Week’ of a revolution in which the communists, socialists and anarchists briefly assumed power, the Communards burned the Tuileries Palace to the ground.
Catherine de Medicis and Marie Antoinette are just two of the many great names associated with the Louvre. In 1516, King Franҫois I persuaded Leonardo da Vinci to come to France, and some of the paintings he brought with him, including the Mona Lisa, now hang in the Louvre. Louis XIV, the Sun King, collected art by Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Poussin, Leonardo, and Rembrandt, all of which are in the museum’s collection. Later kings, queens and emperors added to the collection. During the First Republic, treasures were plundered from all over Europe, Egypt and the Levant, and ‘accumulated in the chambers of the Louvre’. And Vivant Denon, who was appointed by Napoleon to be the first director of the museum, was a compulsive collector who became known as ‘the rapacious eagle’ and whose personal collection included ‘a few hairs from the moustache of Henry IV’ and ‘a drop of Napoleon’s blood’.
Artists such as Chardin, Fragonard, Watteau and de la Tour lived and worked in apartments set aside in one part of the Louvre. Artists and poets gathered, too, in a ‘bohemian’ area of shabby buildings that were cleared away during Napoleon III’s rebuilding work. The Louvre at various times became home to the Académie franҫaise, the Académie des Inscriptions et des Belles-Lettres, the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and the Académie des Sciences. And the Louvre was the first place to call itself a museum and open its doors to the public; the first to hold public salons displaying new works of art; and the first to instigate special exhibitions.
Gardner charts the survival of the Louvre through social and political upheavals, revolutions and wars. In the final chapters, he writes of the way the collections were protected during World War II, and he ends with an interesting account of the development and construction of the Pyramide.
As he wrote in his Preface, ‘This is a tale worth telling, it is also incredibly complex’, so this is a big book and it is probably best read a little at a time. But he tells the tale interestingly and well, and the book does what all good books of this kind should do: it makes me want to go back to the Louvre and see some of the things he writes about that I never noticed before.
James Gardner The Louvre: The many lives of the world’s most famous museum Grove Press 2020 HB 416pp $39.99
Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (//ann.skea.com/) are archived by the British Library.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.