Since its beginnings, the Louvre has conferred legitimacy on those who claimed it, for the brief period of a human lifetime, and as such it has been central to the history of its city and nation, even before there was a nation. It has been a wartime castle, and, rarely, a peacetime palace; it has witnessed faith, bloodshed, grandeur, and spectacle, despair, terror, and resolve that we in our time can only imagine--or reconstruct from the gilded traces left to us. The Louvre drew on the greatest talents of Europe, and was built at the cost of the misery of anonymous millions. Its construction vied with wars, revolutions, and the fall of kings, the rise of republics, and the loss of empires.
At the turn of the thirteenth century, the Capetian warrior king Philip Augustus was trying both to wrest several northern French provinces from King John Plantagenet of England, the treacherous brother of Richard the Lionhearted, and to safeguard the Île-de-France, the region of which Paris was the capital. On the western side of the city's fortifications, facing the Plantagenet holdings, the French king erected a moated castle with towers on a site called the Louvre; the castle walls surrounded a moated circular keep, the Great Tower, one hundred feet high, one of the architectural wonders of the age. Within the stone enclosure, buildings lined the west wall and the Seine wall on the south. This arrangement effectively protected Philip Augustus from foreign enemies to the west and disgruntled subjects to the east; it became the model for military defenses throughout the gradually unified kingdom, and the subject of ballads and popular tales. Ironically enough, the Louvre also served the same capacity for the French as the Tower of London did for their long-time British rivals. The archives and treasury of the Crown were kept there, as were the king's enemies. Philip Augustus, however, lived elsewhere, in his presumably more comfortable palace on the nearby Île de la Cité. Man of war though he was, Philip, also known as Philip II, granted its charter to the University of Paris, the first such institution the world had ever seen. And, in the tradition of monarchs the world over, he was a patron of the arts and of architecture, principally through the many churches he built.
In 1364, Raymond du Temple, architect to Charles V, began transforming the old fortress into a splendid royal residence. Contemporary miniatures and paintings contain marvelous images of ornately decorated rooftops. Apartments around the central court featured large, elaborately-carved windows. A majestic spiral staircase, the “grande vis,” served the upper floors of the new buildings, and a pleasure garden was created at the north end. The sumptuous interiors were decorated with sculptures, tapestries, and paneling.
The Louvre was also a magnificent guest house for visiting dignitaries, such as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV and his retinue, who came to Paris in 1377. The emperor and his suite arrived at the Louvre by boat--an inadequate word for the floating palace that transported him to Charles's breathtaking new construction. Even the emperor was impressed to see the neatly laid-out gardens, Raymond du Temple's grand staircase, the frescoes, and the chapels, including the French king's private oratory, and the many windows. Gargoyles guarded the castle's turrets, while chimneys atop the high roofs told of fireplaces and residential comfort...