It might be the most iconic art museum in the world. Located in Paris, the Louvre (officially the Musée du Louvre) has admitted thousands of cultural artifacts and millions of admirers since opening its doors on this day in 1793. A guided tour is always best, but if you can’t make it to the Right Bank of the Seine, check out these eight facts about the 225-year-old landmark’s past, present, and future.
1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A CASTLE FORTRESS.
Before French King Philip II left for the Crusades in 1190, he ordered the fortification of the Seine area along the western border of Paris against any antagonists. Crowning the structure was a castle that featured a moat and defensive towers; it also housed a prison for undesirables. Over time, other construction urbanized the area, reducing the need for a combat-ready tower. In the 1500s, King Francis I built his residence on the same site. An art lover, Francis’s home and its collection of pieces hinted at what the Louvre would eventually become. In 1793, part of the Louvre became a public museum.
2. IT BECAME AN ARTIST RETREAT.
Before art was on open display for public consumption, the Louvre invited artists to stay and work on site and treat the building like a creative retreat. In 1608, Henri IV began offering artists both studio and living space in the Louvre. They could sculpt, paint, and generally do as they wished—but by the 18th century, the surplus of distinguished squatters had left the property a bit of a mess, and their residency was eventually phased out.
3. IT WAS BRIEFLY NAMED FOR NAPOLEON.
In 1803 Napoleon was the most powerful man in France, and he had recently proclaimed Vivant Denon as head of what is today called the Louvre. The story goes that Denon commented, "There is a frieze over the door awaiting an inscription: I think that ‘Musée Napoléon’ is the only one that suits it.” The banner lasted until Napoleon’s defeat in 1815.
4. AN ARTIST MADE ITS FAMED PYRAMID VANISH.
In a move right out of David Copperfield’s playbook, in 2016 French artist JR was able to execute an impressive optical illusion using the three-story glass pyramid that sits outside the front of the Louvre. The surface was pasted with black-and-white photographs of surrounding buildings, making it seem like the construct had disappeared entirely. The performance piece was left up for about a month.
5. THE MONA LISA WAS SWIPED FROM IT.
Art heists in movies are typically pretty glamorous affairs, with gentlemen thieves and Swiss-watch planning. But when crooks lifted the Mona Lisa from its perch in the Louvre in 1911, it was a fairly indelicate operation. Three Italian handymen hid in the museum overnight, then removed the painting from the wall and bid a retreat out the door in full view of the public. One of them tried selling it over two years later, but a suspicious dealer phoned police. The ensuing media coverage is thought to be one of the reasons the painting has become one of the most famous in the world.
6. IT ONCE CLOSED BECAUSE OF PICKPOCKETS.
In 2013, nearly half of the museum’s 450 employees refused to come to work because of a nagging pest on the premises: pickpockets. Employees said that the adolescent criminals—admission is free for those under 18—distracted and robbed American tourists and showed only disdain for Louvre workers who tried to intervene. Authorities agreed to increase security measures, and the workers returned to their posts.
7. IT HAS RESIDENT “COPYISTS.”
Few museums sanction forgeries of any type, but the Louvre recognizes the curious subculture of artists who enjoy trying to replicate famous works. Every day from 9:30 to 1:30, “copyists” are allowed to set up easels and study paintings while working on their own replicas. The appeal for the artists is to try to gain insight into the process behind masterpieces; the museum insists that the canvas size not be exactly the same, and that they’re not signed.
8. AN APP CAN HELP YOU FIND AN EXIT.
With more than 8 million visitors annually, the Louvre can often feel congested to tourists unfamiliar with its layout. In 2016, the museum began offering an app that guides users around, offering them a pre-planned tour or an exit strategy. Lost? Hang a left at the Picasso, then a right at the Michelangelo.