Reviewed by Ian Lipke
The Louvre is silent now, no footprints show that mankind has walked the corridors of time, no eyes feast on the artworks and sculptures that grace this famous shrine. COVID-19 has put a stop to that.
How welcome then is James Gardner’s present history of the Louvre. Gardner describes his book as a record of the many lives of the world’s most famous museum. A museum now, but not always. Developing from humble origins, the buildings that are the Louvre are a chronicle of the life of Paris itself. Gardner tells the fascinating story of France’s most fascinating, and famous, city in a book with a title as humble as himself, The Louvre.
“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” (xv), – thus James Gardner begins his detailed history of the Louvre. He traces the famous building from ancient times, thousands of years before Celt or Roman ancestors began their migrations from the Eurasian steppes to what is now modern France. He takes as his first historical marker, the reign of Philippe Auguste in the twelfth century, who built a fortress, the first identifiable structure that initiated, through twenty building campaigns over the centuries, the complex we know today.
Gardner’s book is a marvel of modern scholarship. Through his immaculate prose, the Louvre’s history unfolds. He tells a tale of intricate detail, seamlessly melding one historical event into another. Intimately tied to royalty and the glorification of the monarch, the throne and the vision of France, the Louvre has had a chequered history. A residence for royalty, it has shared monarchical preference with palaces at Amboise, Blois, and Fontainebleau. In 1540 in the reign of Francois I, the building was in a shabby state, so much so that the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V took umbrage at having to spend a night there. This was a great embarrassment as, at the time, “outward magnificence was essential to the projection of power and prestige” (41).
Years later, the Louvre was the centre of Louis XIV’s government until he abandoned it for the sumptuousness of his new palace at Versailles, thus giving “architectonic expression to the absolutism that formed the ideological foundation of his reign” (108). Standing idle and decaying, the Louvre became a barn until Napoleon I began storing within its walls the treasures he abstracted from other museums. However, it was Napoleon III whose efforts at refurbishment began the creation of the modern Louvre with which we are familiar. “Every molecule of the Louvre’s Second Empire interiors feels charged with meaning and formal consequence,” Gardner writes, “and each room is the product of hundreds of discrete acts of aesthetic judgment” (262).
Visitors in their millions flock to see what is hung upon the walls but miss some of the greatest treasure, which is the building itself. Gardner employs Goethe to provide a pen picture of superb building practice: “architecture is frozen music” (46). This ‘frozen music’ was exhibited in the 1540s by Lescot to whom Gardner attributes the classical purity of the Aile Lescot, and in the seventeenth century with the specifically French architecture of Lemercier and his quixotic successor Poussin, and later in the work of Bernini who wrested the predominance in the visual arts from Rome to Paris. A final reference to the glory that is the Louvre must be Claude Perrault’s Colonnade, the eastern wall of the Louvre which remained unfinished when Louis XIV moved his court to Versailles and was, therefore, never viewed by the king.
So much detail appears in Gardner’s book. The few examples I’ve alluded to do not do justice to the immense complexity of this solitary volume. I’ve made no mention of the grand staircase that visitors tread without a care for its origin, the famous paintings and sculptures that bedeck the walls and corridors, the human successes and failures that go unnoticed, and the architecture that existed at one time, but has been razed successively, by one ruler or another. I’ve made no mention of the work of Prime Minister Mitterrand and the impetus he gave to the image of the Louvre in the 1980s. I’ve made no mention of the mall and the vast underground garage and bus depot which “account for roughly 40 percent of the territory occupied by the entire Louvre complex” (351). Gardner has it all covered, and reminds those of us who look askance at such usage that this complex has never been exclusively a temple of culture.
It would be remiss of me to fail to mention the liquidity of James Gardner’s prose. It is not only fresh, it is hypnotic. He describes a part of the Louvre less frequented in the words, “One descends into the earth, into something like twilight or even night, to find the remains of the original Louvre” (1). Again, Gardner writes:
Despite its size, it never overpowers the visitor. Although it is one of the largest man-made structures in the world, it never loses its human scale. And in consequence it reveals a quality of benignity and generosity for which, perhaps, it has never received the credit it deserves (139).
He concludes his book on architecture with a reference to renovations that ended in 1993:
…what had been a chilly, drafty, ill-lit but infinitely august institution was transformed into a precinct of light and life. Through a triumph of architecture and urban planning, it has become a happy place (354).
This is a scholar’s book, beyond useful for reference and with an authenticity that demands acceptance. It’s a treasure of almost flawless writing, weakened only by spelling errors on pages 37, 56, 98 and possibly elsewhere. The book is very highly recommended.
By James Gardner
Allen & Unwin