Les Tuileries: The Phantom Palace of Paris
PARIS — There is an enormous void in the heart of Paris.
The millions of visitors who walk over, around, and through the empty space every year take little notice, and most are only dimly aware they tread where a grand palace, home to kings and emperors, once stood. It is just not there, after all.
But when the great Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei was commissioned to rethink, restore, rebuild, and, one might almost say, resurrect the Louvre Museum in the 1980s, that nothingness became something of an obsession.
What’s missing is the Tuileries Palace, the royal residence that once formed the western side of the Louvre complex. Without it, the symmetry of the city, the harmony, the feng shui, if you will, is seriously askew.
Imagine, for a moment, that this is 1870. If you stood at the front door of the Tuileries and looked in the general direction of the setting sun your eye traveled straight down the main promenade through the Tuileries Gardens, through the Place de la Concorde, where an obelisk stands like the needle in a gun sight, and on upward along the Avenue des Champs Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe.
Such was the Grand Axis of Paris, the spine of a city that dearly loves its classical proportions, grand perspectives, and carefully calculated geometry.
Goethe, alluding to the Pythagorean roots of harmony, both aural and visual, said, “Architecture is frozen music.” Part of the wonder of walking through Paris is its architectural harmony, like a frozen classical symphony.
But in this part of the city, once you took away the Tuileries Palace, things didn’t quite line up anymore. The rest of the Louvre complex, developed on much older foundations, is not square with the axis.
The history of what came to be called “The Grand Design” for the Louvre and Tuileries palaces is long and, really, very bloody.
The Louvre itself was first built as a forbidding fortress able to block passage up the Seine River in the 12th and 13th centuries, when French kings were off fighting the Crusades.
It did not become a royal residence until the reign of the great French Renaissance king, Francis I, in the 16th century, and even then it was a dreary shadow of his magnificent palaces at Blois, Chambord, and Fontainebleau.
In 1564, Catherine de Medici, the powerful mother of three kings, decided to build a new palace directly to the west of the Louvre, perpendicular to the Seine, looking across open gardens and marsh that came to be called, after the heaven of heroes in Greek mythology, the Elysian Fields.
Built on a site where roofing tiles, tuiles, had once been made, it was called Les Tuileries.
But, as happened so often in the building’s history, this grandiose work was interrupted by war.
The ferocious religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants raged after the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre which was inspired, in part, by Catherine’s machinations.
The slaughter began in and around the Louvre with calculated assassinations, but it spread as mobs took to the street with gruesome enthusiasm.
“I do not know if it is the smell of gunpowder, or the sight of blood which excites me, but, mordi! I have a taste for slaughter,” says one of the characters hunting around the Louvre in the Alexandre Dumas novel about those times, La Reine Margot.
Henry IV, Catherine’s ex-Protestant ex-son-in-law, eventually emerged as king and tried to pacify Paris with building projects. He also married Marie de Medici, another scion of the great Florentine family.
In 1610 when a Catholic fanatic murdered Henry, his son was not quite 9 years old and Marie became regent. Among her projects, a tree-lined path extending from the Tuileries gardens out through the fields. The axis of western Paris began to take shape.
Marie’s grandson, Louis XIV, was a restless young monarch, and his ministers hoped that they could keep him in Paris, the nation’s capital, by turning the Louvre and the Tuileries into a truly grand residence, a royal city within the city.
The man they hired to do the job was the Italian Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a painter, sculptor, architect—the designer of the beautiful colonnades around St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican—and arguably the most famous artist of his day. But in the end, Bernini’s designs for the Louvre were rejected.
They were very Italian, without visible roofs, and the interiors were rather inconvenient, with badly placed latrines, among other problems.
Another architect, meanwhile, took on the job of completing the Tuileries Palace. As Alexandre Gady writes in Le Louvre et Les Tuileries: La fabrique d’un chef d’oeuvre, “the building was now truly worthy of a king, and had sumptuous, richly decorated apartments.”
It blocked completely the western view of the Louvre, which was angled slightly behind. Its central element was a high dome above a grand suspended staircase, and from its terrace one looked out on the Tuilerie Gardens completely redesigned by the great landscape architect André Le Nôtre, who also planned a grand promenade extending from the center of the gardens through stands of trees, to the base of a low hill in the middle distance.
But Louis XIV was losing interest in the Tuileries. He had turned his attention to a hunting lodge he decided to make the center of his court and of France: the Palace of Versailles, and he ruled from there for the next 44 years after spending his last night at the Tuileries, which was also his last night in Paris, in February 1671.
Bernini, back in Rome, sculpted a monumental statue of the Sun King on horseback. But when it finally was delivered to Louis, after the artist’s death, the monarch hated it. In 1685 he had it relegated it to an obscure corner of the gardens at Versailles. Only 300 years later, and almost in secret, would it suddenly be given new prominence.
By the latter half of the 18th century, the idea that the old Louvre should be turned into a royal museum had been floating around for several decades. The building served as a workspace and home to several artists favored by the court, and also several royal academies. It hosted more or less public expositions of art, and the great figures of the Enlightenment paid frequent visits.
The Tuileries, meanwhile, had become again the royal residence. In 1715 Louis XV had been moved there from Versailles when he was just five years old. (One can only imagine the little boy-king in the enormous spaces of that elaborately decorated palace.)
During the nearly 60 years of Louis XV’s rule, the main promenade through the Tuileries gardens had become a broad avenue reaching all the way to the top of the hill nearly three kilometers away from the palace. By then, it was known as the Champs Élysées.
The ill-fated Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, became king and queen in 1774, and Louis, hoping to show that he was a man of his enlightened times, moved to make the Louvre a true royal museum.
Then came the Revolution.
After the storming of the Bastille in July 1789 and riots in October, Louis brought his family from Versailles back to Paris—to the Tuileries—thinking this would put him closer to the people whom he still hoped were his people. But for the next three years, his presence became the object of revolutionary fury and the Tuileries Palace was denounced as a “refuge for tyrants.”
After the royal family’s failed attempt to escape in June 1791, they were effectively under arrest in the Tuileries, until the palace was attacked and invaded in August 1792, the king imprisoned, and the monarchy abolished.
A few days later, the newly invented guillotine was set up in the Place du Carrousel between the Tuileries and the Louvre, and a “royal agent” named Danglémont beheaded.
The killing machine stayed there, its blade hissing down again and again, until the show moved out to what’s now Place de la Concorde, where more than 1,000 people, including Louis, Marie Antoinette, aristocrats and finally revolutionaries lost their heads on that same straight line leading out from the western entrance of the Tuileries Palace to the top of the Champs Élysées.
Even during The Terror, classical symmetry played its role in the Parisian political theater.
When Napoleon Bonaparte consolidated his power after the Revolution, the Tuileries became his imperial palace, and the Louvre Museum the great repository of the treasures he brought back to France (one might say looted) during his conquests.
The fabulous collection of ancient Egyptian art and artifacts, the bronze horses from Saint Mark’s in Venice, and what seemed countless priceless objects were added to the already stunning collection of paintings and antiquities housed in what was quickly becoming the most magnificent collection of art in the world.
In the Place du Carrousel, more or less where the guillotine had been, Napoleon erected a victory arch in marble reminiscent of those in Rome, and, once again, placed it along the magical line that ran through the center of the Tuileries. At the other end of the the axis, he began work on a much bigger arch, the Arc de Triomphe, which would not be completed until 1836.
But the man who made Paris what it is today, this city of so many wide boulevards and grand perspectives, was not Napoleon I at the beginning of the 19th century, it was his nephew, Louis-Napoleon, who managed to get himself elected president in 1848, then staged a coup d’état in 1851 and in 1852 declared himself Napoleon III, the new emperor of France.
Under the Second Empire, the whole of Paris became a construction site, as buildings were demolished and wide roads cut through the city, not least, so troops could move more easily to suppress unrest.
One of those thoroughfares was the avenue linking the Opéra Garnier, the center of music and dance begun under Napoleon III, with the Louvre, now recognized in all of Europe and the world for its extraordinary collection of art.
In the Tuileries Palace, Napoleon III and his beautiful empress, Eugénie, would hold court side by side in the throne room beneath a violet canopy made of velvet emblazoned with the gold seal of the empire. But even in the imperial abodes, construction was under way, as the emperor’s architects worked to join the museum more closely to the palace.
The imperial “small apartments,” some of which are reproduced in the modern Louvre, were decorated in an over-the-top opulent style known as neo-Louis XV, with carved wood, and masses of gilt. Paintings were everywhere, including the ceilings, and enormous chandeliers showered the rooms with candlelight flickering through cut crystal.
Napoleon III was, for a time, the most powerful man in Europe, but, like many a dictator, he misjudged his own strength. In the 1860s (with the United States weakened by its Civil War) he launched an invasion of Mexico and tried to create a subsidiary empire there under a hapless Hapsburg prince. In Europe, he waded into the wars of Italy, and fatally misjudged the rising power of the Prussians.
The Germans defeated Napoleon III on the battlefield, imprisoned him, and eventually sent him into exile in England. They laid siege to Paris, shelling the city until it surrendered and stationing a garrison there. The empire had collapsed, a new republic was declared.
The workers of Paris rose up to form their own government, The Commune, until the remnants of the national army regrouped at Versailles, and marched into the city on May 21, 1871, routing, and in many cases summarily executing, the communards in what became known as The Bloody Week.
On the night of May 23, a typesetter and former soldier who had risen to lead some of the Commune’s forces, Jules Bergeret, went room to room in the Tuileries with a pair of accomplices drenching the rich furnishings with kerosene, systematically setting the building alight.
Soon the blaze turned the Paris sky red and the 200-year-old building looked like an enormous grate full of burning embers. The dome over the center collapsed into the monumental stairway, and the flames began to spread toward the Louvre.
Today, if you walk down from the iconic Winged Victory through the Louvre’s Daru Gallery, you will pass two marble plaques, poorly lit, that attract virtually no attention.
One is devoted to Henri Barbet de Jouy, the curator of the Louvre in 1871, and members of his staff, who stayed in the building throughout the shelling of Paris by the Prussians and the revolutionary chaos of the Commune, doing their best to protect its treasures from thieves and from the mob, and largely succeeding.
But on that morning of May 24, as the Tuileries fire roared toward the grand galleries of the Louvre and a battle raged outside, where communards had blocked the quay along the Seine, Barbet de Jouy despaired.
There was only one source of water near the wooden bridge that linked the Louvre to the Tuileries inferno, and there was no way to stop the flames, he thought.
The second plaque in the museum, next to Barbet de Jouy’s, is dedicated to Martian de Bernardy de Sigoyer, commander of the 26th light infantry battalion of the regular French army. When his troops had deployed in the Tuileries Gardens, the palace already was in flames.
He saw the danger to the national heritage, and indeed to the world heritage, if the fire spread.
Going against standing orders, he had his men attack the first communard barricade with bayonets and broke through. While some of his troops took positions in the museum windows, covering the quay down below, others mounted to the roof, hacking away at the wooden bridge that joined the museum and the burning palace, and forming a bucket brigade to douse such flames as broke through.
Thus, as the plaque reads, by Bernady de Sigoyer’s “energetic initiative were saved the palace and the national collections of the Louvre.”
Two days later, the heroic officer’s bullet-riddled body, stripped of weapons and boots, was found about four kilometers from the museum, near the Place des Vosges in the Marais. The circumstances of his death never were elucidated. As for Jules Bergeret, the man who torched the Tuileries, he fled to England, then to New York City, where he was naturalized an American citizen, worked as a house painter, and died in 1905, apparently of natural causes.
The ruins of the Tuileries, charred and crumbling stone, remained in place for more than 20 years before, finally, in 1883 they were torn down.
A century later, the architect I.M. Pei and his associates were well aware of all this dramatic history, and also of the fact that then-President François Mitterrand had made their work the centerpiece of an even bigger project that would extend the “Grand Axis” far beyond its old limit to reach an enormous square-shaped Grande Arche in the architectural ghetto to which the city relegated most of its skyscrapers, La Défense.
When the main courtyard of the Louvre, the Cour Napoléon, was a parking lot for bureaucrats in the finance ministry, which used to occupy the north wing, the discordant angle of the old building was not so striking.
But Pei’s solution for a spectacular entrance to receive millions of visitors was a glass pyramid squarely placed in the middle of the courtyard.
And, inevitably, one’s eye, one’s sense of symmetry, one’s innate feng shui, wanted that pyramid to be the end point of the immortal axis. But there was no way to make that happen.
“The Tuileries had been the end point,” said Yann Weymouth, who was the supervising architect for the project at the time.
So there was no anchor, no closure, if you will, and “that bothered us,” he told me over the phone from St. Petersburg, Florida, where he is designing new museums. “As you came down into the Cour Napoléon through the small Carrousel Arch, it didn’t focus on anything.”
As Weymouth recalls, I.M. Pei and Michel Laclotte, the director of the Louvre at the time, “talked a lot about what we could put there.”
Laclotte thought of the Bernini statue of Louis XIV out at Versailles, and a sort of jest, indeed, a beau geste, started to take shape.
Pei had been worried all along that his plans for the Grand Design might meet the same fate as Bernini’s did more than 300 years before: a summary rejection after a huge amount of work. (One notes there are many bathrooms in Pei’s Louvre.) And French critics had been quick to excoriate the proposal for the glass pyramid.
So, with very little fanfare, the equestrian statue was reproduced in cast lead around what Weymouth describes as “a gorgeous stainless steel armature” and put in place in the southwest quadrant of the courtyard.
Today it is hard to imagine the Louvre without Pei’s gorgeous pyramid.
But many of the tourists who sit on the oddly angled base of the Bernini statue to pull sandwiches out of their backpacks, or just catch their breaths, never bother to look up.
I go there every chance I get. It offers, I think, one of the most spectacular and historically fraught perspectives in the world. One sees, as if through a surveyor’s transit, the monuments and boulevards along the axis all the way to La Défense.
One also sees what is no longer there: the courtiers trysting in the gardens; the guillotines of The Terror; and the Tuileries Palace.