The Louvre is the world’s largest museum and houses one of the most impressive art collections in history.
The Louvre is the world’s largest museum and houses one of the most impressive art collections in history.
Credit: kan_khampanya Shutterstock.com

The Louvre is the world's largest museum and houses one of the most impressive art collections in history. The magnificent, baroque-style palace and museum — LeMusée du Louvre in French — sits along the banks of the Seine River in Paris. It is one of the city's biggest tourist attractions.

The Louvre was originally built as a fortress in 1190, but was reconstructed in the 16th century to serve as a royal palace. "Like many buildings, it was built and rebuilt over the years," said Tea Gudek Snajdar, an Amsterdam-based art historian, museum docent and a blogger at Culture Tourist

During its time as a royal residence, the Louvre saw tremendous growth. Nearly every monarch expanded it, according to History.com. Today, it covers a total area of 652,300 square feet (60,600 square meters). In 1682, Louis XIV moved the royal residence to Versailles, and the Louvre became home to various art academies, offering regular exhibitions of its members' works. 

During the French Revolution, Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were forcibly removed from Versailles and imprisoned in Tuilleries Palace, which was then adjacent to the Louvre, according to the Louvre’s official website. They were beheaded there in 1793. 

The National Assembly opened the Louvre as a museum in August 1793 with a collection of 537 paintings. The museum closed in 1796 because of structural problems with the building. Napoleon reopened the museum and expanded the collection in 1801, and the museum was renamed Musée Napoléon.

The line to see the Mona Lisa can get quite long.
The line to see the Mona Lisa can get quite long.
Credit: Alessandro Colle / Shutterstock.com

"It was Napoleon Bonaparte who created the foundation for the world famous museum the Louvre is today," said Gudek Snajdar. "He wanted to be in charge of creating a collection of art in Louvre. That's why he renamed it in 1802 to the 'Napoleon Museum.' He wanted to create a museum of France with a wonderful collection of art from all around the world. He enlarged its collection by bringing art from his military campaigns, private donations and commissions he made."

Napoleon's contributions included spoils from Belgium, Italy, Prussia and Austria, according to Napoleon.org. In 1815, when Napoleon abdicated with the Treaty of Fontainebleau, almost 5,000 artworks were returned to their countries of origin. France was allowed to keep only a few hundred works, and the Louvre reverted to its original name. Many artifacts from Napoleon's conquests in Egypt remained, according to History.com. 

After Napoleon, the Louvre continued to expand. The multi-building Louvre Complex was completed under the reign of Napoleon III in the mid-19th century, according to napoleon.org.

The Louvre's collection includes Egyptian antiques, ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, paintings by the Old Masters (notable European artists from before 1800), and crown jewels and other artifacts from French nobles. Its works span the sixth century B.C. to the 19th century A.D. More than 35,000 works are on display at any given time. The displays are divided into eight departments: Near Eastern Antiquities; Egyptian Antiquities; Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities; Islamic Art; Sculptures; Decorative Arts; Paintings; and Prints and Drawings, according to the Louvre website.

Without question, the Louvre's most famous work is Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," who enchants hordes of visitors with her enigmatic smile. This small, iconic painting — it is only 21 by 30 inches (53 by 77 centimeters) is covered with bullet-proof glass and flanked by guards, according to the Louvre website. This protection is the result of it being stolen in 1911. (It was recovered in 1913.)

Crowds also flock to see the armless beauty of the "Venus de Milo," and "Winged Victory," the ancient Greek sculpture also known as "Nike of Samothrace." Other popular works include a stele inscribed with the Code of Hammurabi, da Vinci's tragic sculpture "The Dying Slave" and Antonio Canova's 18th-century sculpture "Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss." Eugene Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People," which depicts the bare-breasted Liberty goddess leading a charge in the French Revolution, and is thought to have inspired Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," and Jacques-Louis David's "The Coronation of Napoleon" was commissioned by Napoleon himself and is a good reminder of the Louvre's history.

Gudek Snajdar gave Live Science some unique Culture Tourist recommendations. Some of her favorites come from the collection of Near Eastern Art. She recommends the "Frieze of Archers" from the sixth century B.C. and "Winged Bull with a Human Head" from the eighth century B.C. 

She also suggests viewing another masterpiece by da Vinci, "The Virgin and Child With Saint Anne," which is very close to the "Mona Lisa."

"Instead of getting lost in a crowd in front of the 'Mona Lisa,' I would definitely take a look on that painting and enjoy the work of this Italian painter in a peace and quiet," she said. Also, "a few of Johannes Vermeer's paintings are definitely not to be missed (especially when you know there are only 34 of them in the world). It's a great opportunity to see some of them."

"Although today its collection is the most interesting part of the museum, the building itself is an important exhibit, too," said Gudek Snajdar. The building is primarily of Renaissance and French Classical style, she said. The first medieval elements from the old fortress can still be seen underground, beneath the pyramid, around the lobby area. 

"Probably its most famous part is Claude Perrault's 'Colonnade' on the eastern façade of Louvre," said Gudek Snajdar. "It was built in the 17th century and it's a wonderful example of a French Classicism. It's composed of paired Corinthian columns with pavilions at the corners of the facade." She said had influenced many buildings — the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum in New York being just some of them.

The Louvre pyramid, installed in 1988, provides light to the underground lobby.
The Louvre pyramid, installed in 1988, provides light to the underground lobby.
Credit: lsantilli Shutterstock.com

In 1983, the Louvre underwent a renovation plan known as the Grand Louvre, according to History.com Part of the plan called for a new design for the main entrance. Architect I.M. Pei was awarded the project, and he designed an underground lobby and modern glass pyramid structure in the courtyard. Inaugurated in 1988, the pyramid would become a celebrated element of the landmark museum's design. "It is my personal favorite," said Gudek Snajdar. "Combining traditional style with modern architecture, it shows the Louvre's timeless beauty."

In 1993, the Inverted Pyramid, a skylight dipping into the underground lobby, was unveiled, according to the Louvre website.

Because of its size and the scale of its collection, it is impossible to see the entirety of the Louvre in one visit. The museum reported about 8.1 million visitors in 2017 — so prepare for crowds, especially around the most popular works.

The museum offers a variety of tools to help visitors plan their days, including the "Masterpieces Visitor Trail,” timed at about 90 minutes and covering the 10 most famous works, maps of floor plans and advanced ticket options.

The Louvre is open every day but Tuesday and the following holidays: Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and International Workers' Day (May 1). The hours are: Monday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Wednesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.

As of 2018, admission to the entire museum costs 15 euros (17 euros if ordered online). Admission is free for those under 18, as well as other individuals with proper documentation, such as art teachers, pass holders and people with disabilities. Admission is also free on certain special days, such as Bastille Day (July 14).