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Cour Napoléon at the Musée du Louvre : Click to enlarge picture
Musée du Louvre
The original Palais du Louvre was little more than a feudal fortress, begun by Philippe-Auguste in 1200 to store his scrolls, jewels and swords, while he himself lived on the Île de la Cité. Charles V was the first French king to make the castle his residence – the ground plan of his palace can be seen traced on the pavement of the Cour Carré – but not until 1546, the year before the death of François I, were the first stones of the Louvre we see today laid, by the architect Pierre Lescot. During the ensuing reign of Henri II, he demolished the old fortress and built the two wings that now form the southwestern corner of the Cour Carré (to the left of the clock tower). It's just possible to imagine how extraordinary and how graceful the building would have looked, a gleaming example of the new Renaissance style surrounded by the late Gothic of Charles V's day.

Such a radical break with tradition was anathema to the architects working under Louis XIII and Louis XIV, who completed the Cour Carré by copying Lescot's original façade – Louis XIV himself was far more interested in overseeing the construction of his new palace at Versailles. The only hint of novelty lies in the four central pavillons, designed under the quirky, troubled influence of Mannerism. Distinct in design, but no more architecturally innovative is Claude Perrault's academically Classical colonnade facing rue de l'Admiral de Coligny, which somehow beat Bernini's design for the same contract. Napoléon III's main contributions – the courtyard façades of the nineteenth-century Richelieu and Denon wings – conservatively repeat the theme of the Cour Carré.

But for all its many additions and alterations, the palace long remained a surprisingly harmonious building with a grandeur, symmetry, and Frenchness entirely suited to this most historic of Parisian landmarks. That is, until 1989, when, following a century of stagnation, I.M. Pei's controversial Pyramide erupted from the centre of the Cour Napoleon like a visitor from another architectural planet. As part of the same Mitterand makeover, the Finance Ministry moved out of the northern Richelieu wing, whose two main courtyards were then dramatically roofed over in glass. The Passage Richelieu, linking the Cour Napoleon with rue de Rivoli, now offers a better view of the sculptures in these courtyards than that from inside the museum.

Napoleon's pink marble Arc du Carrousel, just east of place du Carrousel, originally formed a gateway for the Palais des Tuileries. It has always looked a bit out of place, despite sitting precisely on the Voie Triomphale axis. The arch is now definitively and forlornly upstaged by the Pyramide, which has outlasted its critics' spleen and found a place for itself in the hearts of even the most conservative Parisians.

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