The biggest robbery in the world. How the French created the Louvre

Bonaparte, already as a general, had eagerly implemented the republic's policy of ripping off the French sphere of influence from works of art. The resources of the Louvre collections were multiplying rapidly, and soon, there was no space in the exhibition halls. The French, who compared themselves to the ancient Romans, were convinced they deserved those masterpieces like a dog deserves its bone.

It's hard to believe, but the Louvre Museum used to be small. When the Muséum Central des Arts de la République was opened on November 8, 1793, after the overthrow of the monarchy, the catalogue of its collections contained 721 items - paintings, sculptures and crafts. Not all of them made it to the exhibition. There was real chaos due to the commissioners constantly changing the program and arrangement. Entrance was free, but possible only three days a week (in the era of revolution, a week had ten days). The remaining five were reserved for copyists, and the other two for cleaners.

Colourful vertigo

The largest world museum was created due to confiscations, i.e. robbery accredited by law.

The first exhibits were the works of art taken from Louis XVI. The collection grew as the government-ordered operation to strip the interiors of palaces, churches, and monasteries kept progressing. And when the revolutionary army turned from defence to attack, no Frenchman had any doubts that the most valuable paintings and sculptures from the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Spain should go under the rooftops of the Seine museum.

Initially, only a few people in Europe were outraged by this robbery. Cosmopolitan elites believed that Paris was the world's capital even before it declared itself "A Cradle of Freedom". The idea of gathering the greatest masterpieces under one roof also appealed to many enlightened individuals. In the 18th century, travelling along the route of cultural monuments was a privilege for the rich and the noble, and wealth was the key that opened the doors of every gallery. Those less mobile and knowledgeable about ancient art had to rely on black-and-white copies, the quality of which was sometimes a crying shame. Then, suddenly in Paris, all the rules were broken, and colourful originals were exhibited to everyone interested!

Enthusiasm faded away when Napoleon took off his revolutionary mask. The world understood that the practice of depriving other nations of their artistic heritage was a symptom of French imperialism, and all the pompous declarations were just a big fat façade and propaganda lies.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Today, the emperor must be rolling over with joy in his grave. His plan, although delayed, was finally implemented. The Louvre is a global champion. Its permanent exhibition includes 36,000 exhibits and almost 616,000 stored in its warehouses. The number of visitors, which exceeded 10 million in 2018, is returning to regular after the COVID-related disruptions. The security of the masterpieces is guarded by 900 cameras and over two thousand employees. In addition to exhibition halls, there is an extensive library, archive, and a science and research centre.

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The management does not intend to rest on its laurels and cares about promotion. Think of the "Belphegor, the Phantom of the Louvre" series, the film adaptation of "The Da Vinci Code", or the latest film about the exploits of the professional assassin John Wick. Indeed, the museum's interiors regularly appeared on small and large screens. It's a deliberate policy. The belief in the Louvre's uniqueness maintains France's superpower myth - the cradle of science, fine arts, fashion and lifestyle that is the envy of the rest of the world. Even the well-being of bureaucrats was sacrificed on the altar of this idea. The subordinates of the Minister of Finance had to leave the building on the Seine, which ended the process of the government institutions moving out (currently, the only tenant there is the Musée des Arts Décoratifs/Museum of Decorative Arts).

The glass pyramid in the Napoleon courtyard became the symbol of the Grand Louvre, opened in pomp and splendour by François Mitterrand in the fall of 1988. The president chose this project arbitrarily, without any tendering procedures, counting on the "Eiffel Tower effect", which many opinion-forming compatriots also complained about. The admiration of foreigners also tipped the scales this time, so Jacques Chirac played a similar card. He became the godfather of a new museum department: the Department of Islamic Arts.

The number of exhibits is still growing, as if in spite of people complaining that there is too much to see in the Louvre and that visiting the entire building is beyond the capabilities of a normal person. Branches in Lens and Abu Dhabi also express the expansionary policy. The creation of the first one is usually explained by the desire to come to an aid of a region that was in decline after the closure of steelworks and mines. In the second case, it was only about money (exactly 832 million euros, which the sheikhs transferred to the account indicated by the French).

Vandals versus tyrants

We say 'Louvre' we think 'a museum'. However, for most of its over 800-year history, the building on the Left Bank of the Seine was a fortress and a royal palace.

The basement displays the foundations of the Capetian castle from the 13th century, surrounded by thick walls and a moat. It housed the crown treasury, a chapel, a prison and a representative hall supported by columns. The statues of King Charles V and his wife decorating the façade miraculously survived. The revolutionaries-vandals contented themselves with knocking the crowns off their heads and tearing the sceptres from their hands. Today, the carefully restored figures can be admired in the sculpture department.

The richly decorated sarcophagi of French rulers from the Abbey of Saint-Denis were less fortunate. Two months after the inauguration of the Louvre museum, most of them were smashed into pieces in the heat of raging against the "tyrants" remains. The painter Lenoir managed to save some of them, placing them in the lapidarium in the Augustinian monastery. In November 1793, the Jacobins broke into the treasury. Its precious contents, transported to Paris in six carts, were used to finance the wars of the republic. Unique art jewellery masterpieces were melted down. Objects considered as antique were spared (ancient Rome and Greece were fashionable in the republic), as well as several reliquaries and the sword of Charlemagne, Charles the Great, used at coronations.

Graveyard of ambitious projects

The characteristic silhouette of the Louvre dates back to the times of the Valois and Bourbons. A 430-meter-long gallery - connecting it with the Tuileries Palace, built next door - will become the heart of the museum in the future. The fortress, which was losing its defensive features, hosted artists already in the 17th century. The lucky people who received royal patronage had their apartments and studios here. Although imitating the Italian Renaissance, the new frontispiece became a model for the French "national" style, just like the colonnade of the eastern wing of the house. All of France is speckled with many buildings imitating the old Louvre style.
The Tuileries Palace (foreground) and the Louvre (centre) in 1850. Photo Wikimedia
The structure itself, as a whole project, is not excessively attractive. It is a conglomeration of buildings from different eras, a veritable graveyard of ambitious projects, only partially implemented.

The architects were appreciated for their emergency work (even Bernini experienced this). Louis XIV wanted to break the curse and dreamed of a palace worthy of the Sun King. It was in the Louvre that the young ruler showed off his dancing skills, and there he watched Molière's performance for the first time. Unfortunately, Louis the Great eventually decided to settle in Versailles, and investments in the old residence were limited to a minimum.

Minister Colbert located the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in the Louvre building (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture), which organised regular exhibitions in the Grand Salon from 1699. The idea to organise a permanent exhibition of the royal collections there arose long before the revolution, but a temporary solution was chosen as a museum of paintings in the Luxembourg Palace, open twice a week.

Eternal enemies, the English turned out to be more decisive. By 1759, London boasted with the British Museum when the discussions were still ongoing in Paris.

The abolition of privileges was one of the basic slogans of the revolution. This also meant making artefacts taken from the bloodsuckers and making them available to the people. The decree establishing the Central Art Museum announced it would begin operating within two weeks. The haste was understandable - the country was sinking into an economic crisis, and more European countries were joining the war with the young republic. The Jacobins felt they were losing popularity. They needed proof that besides terror, they had something positive to offer.

A special brother-in-law

The opening of the Louvre was a propaganda masterpiece and a false start. The exhibition was opened less and less frequently, and after three years, it was locked and bolted due to the need for renovation.

Thanks to Bonaparte, the real premiere took place on the anniversary of the Bastille demolition, on July 14, 1801. Musée Napoléon operated under special rights. Its director, Dominique Vivant Denon, had constant access to the emperor, accompanied him on his conquests and personally selected artefacts worthy of display in the Louvre. Those treasures travelled to France with a military escort in specially constructed wagons and boxes lined with wool and hay.

Bonaparte - who already, as a general, had eagerly implemented the republic's policy of ripping off the French sphere of influence from works of art - forced the Pope to release one hundred of the most valuable sculptures from the Vatican collection. The list, prepared by Baron Denon, was opened by the Laocoön Group and Apollo Belvedere, surrounded by an almost religious cult among antiquity lovers.

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The resources of the Louvre were multiplying, and soon, there was no space in the exhibition halls. They tried to compensate for this by organising dedicated exhibitions - usually on the occasion of the delivery of another batch of loot to Paris. When Napoleon bought the collection of the indebted Prince Borghese for 13 million francs (it was not appropriate to rob his brother-in-law), this priceless collection was immediately put into storage.

The target justified the means. The French, who compared themselves to the ancient Romans, were convinced they deserved those masterpieces like a dog's bone. The artefacts rejected by the Louvre were divided among 15 national museums operating in different provinces. Other works were sent to imperial residences. The subordinates followed the "God of War" example and mercilessly plundered the palaces, manors, churches and monasteries they encountered on their way.

After the occupation of Paris, the Allies, as part of restoring the pre-war order, requested the loot to be returned to their countries of origin. Denon was outraged, but the new authorities ordered him to meet the occupiers' demands. The recovery was facilitated by catalogues prepared by the French with a detailed description, dimensions, provenance and market price of each exhibit.

Leonardo, what have you done?

Not everything was returned though. The Allies ignored the paintings of Italian primitivist artists because they were not fashionable at that time. Louvre tricksters also defended Veronese's great work (literally and figuratively) taken from the refectory of the Venetian monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, threatening that the 70-meter-long canvas would be damaged during transportation. The compensation, i.e. "The meal in the house of the Simon" by Charles le Brun, looked poor compared to "The Wedding Feast at Cana". The French hoped that the republic of Saint Marc, overthrown by Bonaparte, would never come back to the political map of Europe, and the Austrians would not support Venetian claims too zealously. They were right. Apart from "The Wedding" - on the Seine were left the ceilings from the Doge's Palace, also by Veronese.

Currently, the Louvre admits to having 75 artefacts appropriated from Europe during the era of the Revolution and Napoleon. However, the framework of the museum specimens remains the same as it was at the beginning, and it is made of the French monarchs' and aristocrats' former collections, as well as desacralised paintings and sculptures of various church provenances. Denon's ghost haunted subsequent managers who dreamed of the first director's power. Sculptures from the Borghese collection immediately replaced the ancient masterpieces given back to the Pope.

For the time being, one could not count on financial support from the state, but Count Auguste de Forbin came up with an idea that was brilliant in its simplicity. He filled the empty spaces with canvases by painters awarded by the Academy located in the same building. Fortunately, after the talented neoclassicists, a generation of even more gifted romanticists came to the fore. "Liberty Leading the People", "The Raft of the Medusa", and "Grande Odalisque" have become the museum's new showcases. The "nationalisation" of the Louvre Museum - which became an indispensable place for anyone who wanted to gain some knowledge about French art – appeared as the inevitable side effect.

However, the most famous exhibit remains the same: the work of the Italian artist "Gioconda". It arrived there quite by accident. If the sybarite king Francis I had not persuaded the elderly Leonardo to move to the Loire, one of the aristocrats visiting Italy could have purchased the painting, for example, Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski. Where did the popularity of an enigmatic woman, portrayed by a painter who privately preferred men, come from?
In the 19th century, Europe was de-Christianizing, but people wanted to believe in something (e.g. science). The "religion of art" could be practised by a handful of pretties and snobs, while the emotions of the general public focused on the works of artists who were already called "divine" during their lifetime. The cult of the Renaissance practised at universities, took over salons and then public opinion. And who was the greatest genius of the Renaissance? Naturally, da Vinci. Mona Lisa's popularity was intensified by her disappearance in 1911. The thief turned out to be some old mope, and after two years, the painting returned to Paris, becoming an object of hysterical adoration that had no end.

Egyptologist with a saw and a pickaxe

Before Gioconda's rule of hearts, the Louvre's fame was earned by its Ancient Art department. Crowds of people crawled along to get to the museum and see with their own eyes the fruit of the spectacular discoveries of French amateur archaeologists.

It started with the Venus de Milo. The sculpture, mistaken for the work of the legendary Praxiteles, was exhibited in a separate room. The delights did not stop when it turned out that the German archaeologist was right, claiming that the statue comes from the Hellenistic period. Only Stefan Żeromski through the resolute Miss Wanda, an episodic heroine of "Homeless People", told the truth about Venus. "Her back is completely shattered as if someone had battered her up with the steward's whip for four days in a row".

The Winged Victory, the Nike of Samothrace, repeated her success, although she was even more tormented than the goddess of love. It had to be glued together from fragments found on a Greek island. "In the windy waves of your slender robes, I hear the music/Flight that no birds can transcend", commented Leopold Staff.

The acquisition of ancient relics was accompanied by fierce rivalry of the British. While Napoleon raided Egypt, a fleet of islanders intercepted treasures he sent to Paris. This way, the Rosetta Stone, which was used to solve the mystery of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, instead of the Louvre, went to the British Museum.

The French then realised they would achieve more by deception than force. Friendly relations with Cairo made life easier for Egyptologists, and it was also easier to obtain permission to export antiquities abroad. In 1828, an employee of the Louvre, the famous Champollion, personally supervised the cutting of a monumental rock-cut relief from the tomb of Pharaoh Seti I. Fifteen years later, a French diplomat residing in Mosul came across the trail of another lost civilisation. Reliefs depicting winged bulls with human heads, discovered in the ruins of the Assyrian ruler's Palace, caused an absolute sensation when they were unloaded from barges on the embankment of the Seine. At the same time, the Louvre came into possession of tablets covered with cuneiform writing, the oldest in the history of humankind.

In addition to priceless artefacts, the Paris Museum has gained prestige. Collectors were more and more willing to give away their treasures. Mishaps also happened: the biggest was the London auction of the King Louis-Philippe collection, which was deposed in 1848. Then the Louvre was called the People's Palace. It turned out that Napoleon III wanted to outbid his famous namesake. He ordered additional wings of the building and galleries to be built. The facades were decorated in the era's spirit with allegorical sculptures such as "France as the protector of science and education". Pompous paintings dedicated to famous artists and their patrons had already appeared in the galleries. The "New Louvre" was a ponderous, eclectic structure that also housed a printing office, a library, a post office, and two ministry departments.

The shadow of treason over the Seine

During the hot days of the Paris Commune, this amity with the authorities almost ruined the museum. The Tuileries Palace burned down, and its older brother - the Louvre, fortunately suffered only minor damage.

The world kept watching, full of jealousy. Following the Parisian model, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Prado in Madrid and the Brera Art Gallery in Milan developed its facilities. The gem of the collection were paintings and sculptures that did not return to their former owners after the fall of Napoleon.

The Louvre inevitably became a conservative institution when the works created in the second half of the 19th century were ordered to be moved to the former d'Orsay station. You can only imagine the visitors' astonishment when in 1953 "The Birds" by Georges Braque appeared on the ceiling of the Etruscan antiquities hall. The Cubist repeated this success eight years later: he was the first living artist to have the honour of exhibiting his works in the Louvre. Then the curtain fell, and it was only in 2007 that the German painter Anselm Kiefer was asked to decorate one of the staircases. The result was a macabre work called "Athanor".

Attempts to modernise the museum of ancient art are ongoing. American painter Cy Twombly created a new ceiling in the Hall of Bronzes, French artist François Morellet contributed an abstract stained glass window, and Elias Crespin from Venezuela donated an installation: "The work entitled L'Onde du Midi (The Southern Wave) consists of 128 cylindrical tubes alienated in parallel and suspended in the air by transparent threads", (ELIAS CRESPIN. L'ONDE DU MIDI @ MUSÉE DU LOUVRE, PARIS). It's time for a Polish artist to join them because so far, the only Polish touch in the permanent exhibition of the Louvre is a portrait of the arch-traitor Count Stanisław Szczęsny Potocki (with his sons).

– Wiesław Chełminiak

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Katarzyna Chocian
Main photo: Could the Tour de France avoid the Louvre during its Paris leg of the race? Photo Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA/PAP
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