What you didn’t know about the good ol’ Louvre will shock and delight you.
Ever feel like getting the side eye from a painting? Paris’ Louvre museum is definitely the place to go to see famous paintings, especially ones that seem half-magic… looking at you, Mona!
The world famous Mona Lisa isn’t the only baffling thing you’ll find at the Paris Louvre. Let’s begin with the basics, though…
1. The Louvre museum started out as a fortress.
First things first: did you know the Louvre is a palace? If you hear referred to as Palais du Louvre, that’s why.
To blow your mind even more… The Louvre Palace has been around since the 12th century, but it wasn’t always a palace.
It was a defense fortress.
In 1190, King Philippe Auguste decided to build a fortified wall surrounding Paris in order to protect her. Although today the Louvre stands in the center of Paris, in the 12th century it actually marked the edge of the city. The Louvre began as a defense tower, but was eventually turned into a palace during the reign of King Francis I.
2. The Mona Lisa hasn’t always been housed in the Louvre
Speaking of King Francois I… it is said that the French king loved Leonardo da Vinci’s works so much that Francois was at da Vinci’s bedside as he breathed his last breath (major fan-boy moment)!
It is supposedly at this moment that Francis acquired the Mona Lisa painting.
After da Vinci’s death, Mona was moved between many of the royal family’s palaces such as Versailles and Fontainebleau, before ultimately finding her permanent home in the Louvre.
Today, she is protected under bullet proof glass and a special climate controlled system. (Is that to protect her, or to protect you? Read the next point…)
3. Mona Lisa’s eyes totally mess with your brain
Go head, push past the throng of tourists you are bound to find crowded in front of the famous art work…
Take a closer look and you may notice that when looking into Mona’s eyes, her gaze follows you as you move from the left to the right. Way to be creepy, Mona.
Is this Scooby Doo magic?
Nope! It’s just da Vinci’s genius. Um… and your brain being both incredibly smart and incredibly dumb.
The effect is thanks to a special painting technique that capitalizes on our brain’s inherent desire to understand what we see. Basically, the use of shadow, light, and perspective on a two-dimensional canvas force our brains to perceive it as three-dimensional.
But why do the eyes follow you? In real life, if you walk from side to side in front of someone’s face, the light, shadow, and perspective will all change because, well, it’s 3D reality. However the light, shadow, and perspective in a painting are all fixed in 2D: they look pretty much the same no matter from what angle you look at it.
So if a person is painted to look at you, he or she will continue to look as you move from side to side. If a person is painted looking away from you, he shouldn’t ever be able to look at you. Not even if you stand at the point he’s been painted to look towards.
Perspective in painting wasn’t used until the 14th century, and da Vinci was one of the first true masters of it. However, you’ll find many a painting in the Louvre that will creep you out the same way Mona Lisa does.
4. When the Louvre first opened it had only 721 works of art
Image: Louvre 1801, Wikimedia
The Louvre was solidified as THE royal palace during the reign of King Francois I. As the royal courts were moved to Versailles by King Louis XIV, the Louvre palace went seriously out of style.
After the French Revolution in 1789, the courts were driven back into Paris, and therefore back into the Louvre palace.
Shortly after, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture – apparently annoyed with all the changes – decreed that the Louvre should be used as a museum to display the nation’s masterpieces. Starting 10 August 1793, the public was given free access 3 days per week.
There were only 721 works of art at first (537 paintings, 184 objects). Keep in mind that today, the Louvre displays more than 35,000 works of art… and charges 15 euros per ticket.
There’s no way to get around paying those 15 euros, but there ARE ways to avoid waiting in the 3+ hour lines…
5. Napoleon renamed the museum after himself
C’mon Napoleon, what are you trying to do, compensate for something?
Napoleon Bonaparte is definitely not known for his modesty, but renaming the Louvre after himself a whole new level. Talk about narcissism!
Bonaparte took power in 1799 and began making a ton of changes to Paris. Ever seen the Vendome column or the Madeline church? What about the Arc de Triomphe? Those (and more) were Napoleon’s projects!
Among these many changes was a small but significant one: the title of the Louvre. In 1802, you’d be visiting the Napoleon Museum.
In addition to this, believe it or not, during his rule Napoleon had the Mona Lisa hung in his private bedroom! This guy really takes ‘treat yo’self’ to the extreme.
6. Artwork stolen by the Nazis was stored in the Louvre
Image: Bibliotheque Nationale de France
The Occupation of Paris is pretty famous in the world of history buffs, but for those who don’t know: it is when Nazi Germany had complete control of Paris.
When the curators of the Louvre caught word that the Nazis were invading, they scrambled to empty the Louvre of its most valuable pieces. With great luck, they were successful. Most of the good stuff was saved and hidden elsewhere across France.
For example, the Winged Victory of Samothrace was sent to the Château de Valençay (central France). Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa, which would be moved first to Chambord, then Louvigny, the Abbaye de Loc Dieu, the Musée de Montauban and finally to Montal (south-western France).
So the Louvre was looking pretty empty when the Nazis arrived. They decided to fill it with something else.
The Nazis stole an enormous amount of artwork, much of it from Jewish families. These stolen goods were stored inside the Louvre during the Occupation. The collection of stolen goods took up over six rooms in the museum.
7. The Louvre Museum wins at pretty much everything
In 2015, the Louvre Museum welcomed 8.6 million visitors. That’s about the population of London.
Let that sink in…
This massive number allowed the Louvre to maintain its position as the most popular museum in the world! Yet, somehow, it is still less visited than Disneyland Paris.
The Louvre is also one of the world’s most followed museum on Facebook with 1.6 million fans.
The museum is also one of the largest museums in the world, the length of the grand building covering 2 miles.
That’s a lost of ‘mosts’, Louvre! Lucky for us that the place is so big, because it is literally stuffed to the brim with stuff. Which brings us to our final point…
8. There are nearly 400,000 objects in the museum
There are more than 380,000 pieces of art housed at the Louvre, but “only” about 35,000 are out for us average-Joe visitors to see.
Who knew 35,000 could be considered so little!
The rest of the art is in storage, only accessible to select Louvre staff and researchers.
The eight categories of art in the Louvre are as follows (in no particular order):
- Egyptian Antiquities
- New Eastern Antiquities
- Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities
- Islamic Art
- Decorative Arts
- Prints and Drawings
Are you overwhelmed? Yeah, us too. But it’s not difficult to see all the highlights, if you’re with a friend…
And of course, if you’re worried about waiting in line for the Louvre, there are ways around that…
There you have it, our round up! We hope you find them as interesting and intriguing as we do, and we doubly hope that you get a chance to check out this incredible museum for yourself.
Don’t hesitate to check out our own Keys to the Louvre tour, to learn even more.