Two hundred and twenty two years ago the world’s most famous museum first opened its doors to the public; six centuries after its first foundations were laid by the first official King of France. It was sometime toward the end of the 1100s that Philip Augustus constructed a series of defensive structures — among the largest in Europe — including a moat and a hundred-foot tower, overlooking what was then the western edge of Paris, along the banks of the River Seine. Over the following centuries, as Paris’ borders bulged, its defences moved with them, but ruins of the city’s very first stronghold still remain.
It would be 400 years before the stoic structure was given the chance to shine once more when Francis I ordered a complete Renaissance-style reconstruction. In 1527, it was reborn, rebranded as a royal palace. It was here that the building’s link to Leonardo da Vinci was first established when Francis, an esteemed patron of all things art, convinced the great Italian master to up sticks for Paris. Francis’ dream of a palace fit for a king continued long after his death, the site continuing to expand and blossom, sprouting wings designed by some of Europe’s finest minds.
1789, the French Revolution begun as heads of state began to roll. The building became official public property. Three years after the Storming of the Bastilles, for the first time the ordinary folk of France were invited inside to witness an exhibition comprising of works confiscated from their nation’s nobility. Napoleon, never afraid to showboat, named the cultural complex Musée Napoléon, and within its walls displayed his vast array of war-won spoils, many of which were returned to rightful owners after the Emperor’s fall. From then it was called the Louvre.
Over a century later, it was the turn of another army to envelop Europe. As Hitler and his Nazi Party headed west, keepers of the Louvre hastily shipped to safety all they could; the first to go, the Mona Lisa. When the Germans arrived, the Louvre was nigh-on empty, only statues and sculptures too cumbersome to carry remained and the museum became a storage house for the Nazi’s stolen loot.
The iconic glass pyramid, built by the father of modern architecture, I.M. Pei, opened in 1989. Today, over 70,000 artworks covering 650,000 square feet of gallery space are visited by nearly nine million guests each year.
The world’s most famous painting once hung from Napoleon’s bedroom wall. In fact, the Mona Lisa wasn’t even the world’s most famous painting until its 1911 theft and the subsequent two-year hunt for its recovery. Da Vinci’s work revolutionised portrait painting and the identity of the enigmatic subject, painted with oil on poplar wood, remains unknown. It was created in Florence between 1503 and 1506. Measuring just 77cm by 53cm, it is one of the Louvre’s smallest masterpieces, but remains its biggest draw. As a reward, she even has her own eponymous room.
The Seated Scribe
As mysterious as the Mona Lisa, the Seated Scribe is considered one of the most important pieces of ancient Egyptian art. No one knows the identity of the person portrayed in the sculpture, or even the exact date it was made. The half-metre statue was found in 1850, in Saqqara, an ancient Egyptian burial ground. Famed for its intricate face and piercing eyes of red-veined white magnesite in which crystals once nestled. It was likely crafted sometime between 2600-2500 BC.
Winged Human-Headed Bull
Often referred to as a ‘shedu’ or ‘lamassu’, the Winged Human-Headed Bull is a mythical Middle Eastern creature, which was thought to ward off evil and enemies. This piece, standing four metres tall and carved from a single block of stone, once stood guard outside an 8th century BC palace of Sargon II, ruler of the Assyrian Empire.
Aphrodite, known as the Venus de Milo
One of the most famous examples of ancient Greek art, the Venus de Milo was crafted in the early 2nd century BC and is thought to portray Aphrodite, the goddess of love (called Venus by the Romans). The marble object, which stands at a little over two metres, was likely crafted by Alexandros of Antioch. It was discovered in 1820 in the Greek island of Melos and given to Louis XVIII, who then donated it to the Louvre. Her arms have never been found.
Diamond, known as the Regent
Legend has it the Regent diamond was discovered by a slave in India around 1700 to be hidden among bandages over a self-inflicted leg wound. Upon divulging his secret to an English sea captain, the slave was murdered, the 426-carat stone sold to Thomas Pitt, Governor of Madras. It was later cut in England then sold to France where it was worn for the first time by Louis XV at the reception of a Turkish embassy in 1721. A year later, it was temporarily mounted to the king’s crown for his coronation ceremony.