In recounting the growth of one of the West’s grandest cultural achievements, James Gardner is an admirably conservative guide to the impressive qualities of the Louvre. Today when Western civilization is under attack as never before, it is a paradox that the encyclopedic art museum, one of the characteristic achievements of this civilization, is more popular than ever.

The Louvre: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum, by James Gardner (416 pages, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020)

First-time visitors to the Louvre come for the Mona Lisa and the Italian Renaissance paintings. Though thrilled by the art, they are likely overwhelmed by its sheer quantity, the enormous crowds, and the vast expanse of the building complex. What most of these visitors don’t realize is that before it was the “world’s greatest museum,” the Louvre was home to the kings, queens, and emperors of France, including figures of colossal ambition such as Louis XIV and Napoleon, each of whom left his distinctive mark on the buildings and the collections.

In The Louvre: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum, James Gardner, an architectural critic for the New York Post, writes that this institution—stretching for a half-mile from east to west in the very center of Paris—was “contrived, both in its general design and in its specific details, to appear almost superhuman.” Moreover, the first curators hired and inspired by Napoleon, envisioned a museum of the world’s major civilizations—encyclopedic in scale and filled with the loot collected by the emperor’s armies as they plundered Europe and Egypt. No wonder visitors exit dazed and confused.

Happily, Mr. Gardner’s approach is demystification rather than deconstruction. He makes the “walls talk,” as it were, through the “many lives” of the royal protagonists and their architects, artists, advisors, and philosophers who promenade in his pages across eight centuries. The story begins in 1191 when the warrior king Philippe August ordered the building of a fortress outside the city walls to protect from English invaders and then dashed off on the Third Crusade to the Holy Lands. The saga ends with the tale of the once-controversial collaboration in the 1980s by President Francis Mitterrand and Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei to modernize and expand the old buildings—air conditioning, underground parking, and a shopping mall—into the Grande Louvre, the symbol of which is Pei’s famous glass and metal pyramid.

Here, briefly, are a few of the “many lives.”

On ascending the throne in 1515, François I decided to make the Louvre his permanent residence, so an upgrade was in order. A prodigious builder, patron, and art collector, the king will forever be remembered as the man who brought Leonardo Da Vinci and the Italian High Renaissance to France. At a loss for patronage in Italy, the aged artist arrived with the Mona Lisa along with several other unfinished paintings, heaps of drawings, and twenty codices—all acquired by the king after the artist’s death. As if this was not enough, François snagged the rarest of rarities: two Michelangelo sculptures. Pope Leo X, hoping to persuade the king to invade the Ottoman Empire, sent several Raphael masterpieces. In this era, kings realized the cultural prestige that a superb art collection would confer on their reign and nation.

Catherine de Medici, widow of Henry II and regent, commissioned her palace, the Tuileries (destroyed by the Paris Commune in 1871), outside the city on the model of her family’s Pitti Palace in Florence. When her son-in-law became Henri IV, he saw the need to connect the Louvre and the Tuileries with a half-mile-long corridor to shelter the nobles as they walked between palaces. In our day, this corridor, known as the Grande Galerie, is the section of the museum that most visitors see. It contains the majority of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque paintings from Cimabue to Caravaggio and climaxes with Leonardo’s lady.

In the later 17th century, Louis XIV, presiding over the nation’s Grand Siècle, chose the architect Claude Perrault to design a classical facade, the Colonnade, as the new front entrance facing the growing city eastward. The facade, Mr. Gardner asserts, is “as fine a piece of architecture, classical or otherwise, as will be found anywhere in the world.” Ironically, I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid completely changed the museum’s orientation to the west, ensuring that most visitors never see Perrault’s masterpiece. The Sun King, after quadrupling the complex to “pharaonic” dimensions and spending so lavishly that he nearly bankrupted the nation, became bored with Paris and moved the court to Versailles. The Louvre went through a century of royal decline but artistic renewal. Artists and academics moved into the palace to live and work, including such luminaries as Chardin, Hubert Robert, Fragonard, and Jean Louis David, making it the de facto center of the fine arts in France. By the mid-18th century, the palace opened its doors for semi-annual Salons, i.e., public showings of contemporary art. The art exhibition was born and, along with it, the art critic, represented by the brilliant reviews of the philosophe Denis Diderot.

Diderot was one of the many voices urging the transformation of the palace into a public museum. Even as the French Revolution entered its bloodiest phase, it could not stop the momentum for a public museum; on August 10, 1793, between the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the museum opened to eager crowds. Art from churches and monasteries confiscated by the revolutionaries went into the new institution. When Napoleon’s armies marched through Europe and Egypt, they seized paintings and sculptures on an “almost industrial” scale to fill the galleries. “By fair means and foul,” the museum was becoming, as Mr. Gardner puts it, “the greatest repository of art, ancient and modern, that the world had ever seen or would ever see again.”

After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, thousands of paintings and sculptures were sent back to their owners. One work that didn’t make the return voyage is Veronese’s wall-sized Marriage Feast at Cana stolen from Venice. Too big to transport (though not to steal!). In our time, the vast crowds barely notice this spectacular masterpiece that hangs opposite the Mona Lisa. In 1911, Leonardo’s lady was stolen off the walls by an Italian museum handyman who mistakenly assumed that it had been part of the Napoleonic plunder. The two-year drama of detection and discovery reported on an almost daily basis in the newspapers transformed the painting into the famous icon it remains today—the main reason first-time visitors come to the museum.

There are other absorbing stories such as how the museum refused to shut during the Spanish Influenza and how during World War II, the walls of the galleries went mysteriously empty of art. The curators anticipating the fall of Paris, and the art looting of the Nazi elite, sent the works into hiding in distant places across France.

Today when Western civilization is under attack as never before, it is a paradox that the encyclopedic art museum, one of the characteristic achievements of this civilization, is more popular than ever. In recounting the growth of one of the West’s grandest cultural achievements, Mr. Gardner is an admirably conservative guide to those qualities that impressed the young Henry James on his first visit. It will continue to impress those with eyes to see: “not only beauty and art and supreme design” but also “history and fame and power, the world in fine raised to the richest and noblest expression.”

Whether you’re a first-timer, an armchair traveler, or a veteran visitor, this book will delight and enlighten. I only wish there were more pictures!

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