While the adventurous travel to Paris, London and Edinburgh, three glorious cities, it is the Louvre in Paris – the magnificent repository of the world's greatest collection of art – that mesmerizes most people.
Though known first and foremost as a museum, for almost 700 years the buildings of the Louvre constituted the principal residences and palaces of the kings and emperors of France.
Today, many recognize it as the most beloved and important institution in the world, having evolved into more than a great art gallery. The Louvre represents the art and culture of many civilizations, housed in a palatial edifice where more than 6 million people come each year to feast their eyes on immortal works of art. It's a living monument to the creative genius of painters, architects and sculptors.
In a single visit to the Louvre, it becomes easy to understand why many consider it the heart and soul of Paris – and the cultural epicenter of France.
The history of the Louvre reads like an exciting Alexandre Dumas novel. Its buildings offer a journey through time, while its galleries display works that arouse the full range of human emotions – from admiration and wonder to curiosity and anger. The range of objects tells us about the times – about social, class, sexual and religious feelings and beliefs.
In 1190, King Philippe Auguste ordered the construction of the Louvre as a fortress to protect the weakest point in his new city perimeter on the banks of the Seine. It occupied less than a quarter of its current space, and was used as a treasure house, arsenal and archive. The dungeons, which once imprisoned nobles who defied the monarchy, can be seen today in the underground corridors.
In the 14th century, the Louvre no longer functioned as a military fortress, and Charles V converted the massive structure into a residence.
For more than 200 years after Charles V, French kings resided in their own Paris mansions or in their chateaux on the banks of the Loire. Then, in 1546, François I commissioned an architect to build a new royal palace on the site of the Louvre.
Following the tragic death of Henri II, his widow, Catherine de' Medici, had a residence built for her near the Louvre, in an area known as the Tuileries. (Today, the exquisite Tuileries Gardens are a favorite among the many fascinating sights in Paris.) Then, after years of neglect and renovations, Louis XIII had the old Louvre dramatically extended fourfold.
Enter the "Sun King," Louis XIV, who wanted an elaborate, regal exterior for his beloved Louvre – and the classic and majestic Colonnade was created. It was abandoned as a royal residence when he moved the court to Versailles in 1682. Until the French Revolution, the magnificent art collection was strictly for the pleasure of the court. The concept of public appreciation was never considered.
After the Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte married Marie Louise in a grand ceremony in the Louvre. Napoleon is rumored to have kept Da Vinci's Mona Lisa ("La Gioconda") in his bedroom for four years, so fascinated was he with the enigmatic smile on the extraordinary painting. (After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, the artworks were returned in 1815 to their rightful countries.)
During the French Revolution, the concept of a museum was finally realized on Nov. 18, 1793, when the massive doors of the Grande Galerie opened to an eager public.
Today, the world's largest museum houses approximately 300,000 objects of art, many of which are stored in the cavernous basement. In 1984, with renovations and expansion under way, the renowned architect, I.M. Pei, created a contemporary architectural entrance to the museum: a 71-foot-tall, stunning pyramid of glass and steel in the central courtyard.
With reflecting pools, dancing fountains and handsome illumination to the main entrance to the museum, the pyramid gained worldwide celebrity overnight. At first, there was mixed reaction to this bold structure, but it has since become a relatively beloved landmark in the Parisian landscape, one of its symbols … like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe.
Peering up through the pyramid's transparent glass walls visitors are transfixed by the sight of the sky, the fountains and the museum's centuries-old wings.
There is an intriguing enigma that I'd hoped would be resolved by now. But it has proved almost impossible.
Several years ago, I learned that according to a report by an independent government agency, nearly 2,000 works of art, possibly seized from Jews during the Nazi invasion of France, were still "provisionally" in the care of French museums. The report, which did not identify specific artworks, was only made public in January of 1997.
Jewish leaders were promised that a high-level commission of inquiry would investigate to learn what happened to Jewish possessions never returned to their rightful owners, generally because they were killed by the Nazis.
The man who was effective in bringing this matter to the attention of Alain Juppe, French prime minister at the time, was Emmanuel Weintraub. He said, "What we want is the truth. If it is unpalatable or not doesn't really matter – we want the truth."
Weintraub felt that "there was some benign neglect on the part of the museums, who didn't want to know all the details about some of their possessions."
According to Art News, a New York City magazine, in the spring of 1997, there was a series of exhibitions in French national museums of works that were known to be pillaged by the Nazis from Jewish collectors, and purchased for German museums and Nazi dignitaries during the occupation of France. The French have recognized many of the heirs of Jews robbed by the Nazis, and have begun to return artworks.
And the mystery continues.
For more information, log on to: www.louvre.fr.