Paris, Asharq Al-Awsat—For the first time ever, a major Western museum, the Louvre, has provided a permanent home for an Islamic art collection. The Louvre has provided massive new gallery space to house what Louvre Director, Henri Loyrette, describes as being “one of the richest collections of Islamic art in the world.”
Already the most popular museum in the world, with nearly nine million visitors in the past year alone, the new Islamic galleries are set to draw even more people to this grand old lady of Parisian museums. Thew new Islamic Art galleries are noted for their dynamic displays and spectacular new architecture.
Loyrette said: “We have always been open to the world, and today, our visitors are increasingly interested in the Islamic world. But many people don’t know anything about it, and it’s important to show them the luminous face of this civilization.”Since 2008 a USD 127 million renovation has been underway, its radical architectural additions blending seamlessly into an 800-year-old former palace—a huge challenge and technical triumph. Visitors can now embark on a sensory and hi-tech voyage of discovery across the 3,000 square meter space, at present displaying over 2,500 masterpieces. This massive face-lift, unveiled at the end of 2012, was financed in part by the French government. Other sponsors included the governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Morocco, Kuwait and the Republic of Azerbaijan, as well as the oil company, Total.
In 1793 the French revolutionary government took over the old Louvre palace, founding the Museum of Decorative Arts, and appropriating the royal collection. Among them were a number of Arab/Islamic artifacts, which form the nucleus of today’s collection. At the beginning of the 20th century the Museum of Decorative Arts was amassing a different collection of outstanding craft objects spanning the centuries, including lusterware ceramics from ancient Samarra, pre-dating Mesopotamia; contemporary Berber rugs from north Africa; huge but delicate Egyptian Mamluk mosque lamps; and outstanding textiles, all key elements of Islamic culture.
In 2001 Henri Loyrette launched an ambitious project to devote more space to do justice to the richness of the Museum’s collection, which would be amalgamated with those of the neglected Museum of Decorative Arts. The two collections perfectly complemented each other: that of the Louvre focusing particularly on medieval Islamic treasures; while the Museum of Decorative Arts’s collection included artworks from the Arab world’s great modern empires, from the 16th to the 18th centuries, including the Ottoman empire.
Two years later, in 2003, then French President, Jacques Chirac, announced a new department dedicated to Arab/Islamic art to be created at the Louvre. It now consists of 15,000 artifacts, in addition to the 3,400 works on permanent loan from the Museum of Decorative Arts. Together these collections span the entire geographical and historical Islamic world; from Spain to India, from the 7th to the 19th centuries.
Since the announcement in 2005 of the architects selected to design the new galleries, a massive project began to take shape. Throughout the 800 years of its history, the Louvre palace and Museum have repeatedly attracted each period’s most gifted and influential innovators in the fields of architecture and design. Creating the new department within the Visconti Courtyard raised considerable architectural challenges.
The winning design by Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti meets the test of constructing an avant-garde building on the premises of a protected historical monument, though it has provoked much controversy. Milanese architect Mario Bellini says that he and Ricciotti have “a deep respect for the Islamic collection, combined with personal knowledge of its geographical and cultural context.”The design is spectacular yet elegantly understated, achieving a subtle balance between the courtyard’s neo-Classical facades and the need for a contemporary homage to Islamic culture. It is a symphony of glass and metal extending beneath the existing courtyard level of the Visconti to create two sub-levels. One is for very light-sensitive artifacts, the deepest level housing technical facilities. The whole highly original structure is topped by a golden glass roof enclosing the galleries, which soars like a gigantic sail, allowing diffused natural light to permeate the exhibition spaces.
Bellini comments: “It’s like an enormous dragonfly wing that undulates as if suspended in the wind, almost touching the courtyard ground at one point, but without disturbing the historic facades.”
The interior design by Renaud Piérard is equally dramatic yet subtle. Brass-speckled black floor tiles echo the black concrete walls and the gilded tones of the glass roof. The entire muted atmosphere directs the visitor’s focus to the precious artefacts, in all their varying colours and motifs.
The concept for visiting the galleries is the work of Mario Bellini and Renaud Piérard, a perfect loop in which visitors are encouraged to take a journey literally and metaphorically in one single direction. They start on the courtyard level where works dating from the 7th to 11th centuries are shown.Then they proceed to the sub or parterre level devoted to objects from the 11th to the late 18th centuries in muted light. This gentle trajectory evokes an intentional ambiance of contemplation or meditation.
The new galleries are conceived as an introduction to the outstanding principles that define Islamic art and culture, through the chronological exploration of a number of themes. These include architecture, urban life, courtly commissions and the arts of the book, as well as technical mastery. A variety of hi-tech tools appeal to today’s museum audiences, experiencing multimedia installations, listening to Arabic, Persian or Turkish commentaries by specialists, which are also available in French, English and Spanish. For children and their families, there are special guided tours involving folk tales and music.
So what have they all come to experience? As we have seen, the design flow takes us on a journey through time, Islamic time, starting with the first empires or dynasties, the age of the Caliphates, from 632-1,000 CE. First came the Ummayad caliphate; then the Abbasids. One exhibit gives us an idea of the splendor and size of just one of the many royal palaces at Samarra on the Tigris in today’s Iraq. A massive carved teak door panel is 240.5 cm high and 56.8 cm wide.The Fatimids founded Cairo as the capital of their caliphate, lasting from 909-1171. An exquisite rock-crystal ewer decorated with gold filigree evokes the lavish lifestyles of caliphs and wealthy merchants. One of the most complicated items to restore and re-assemble was a late 15th century Mamluk porch.
“It’s been kind of a detective story,” said Sophie Makariou, the Louvre’s Director of Islamic Art. “Suddenly this great piece of architecture appears that illustrates the grandeur of Cairo during this very exceptional dynasty. But I promise you I’m not Agatha Christie!”
The Ottomans, ruling a vast empire from the 14th to the 20th centuries, are the last time-frame covered in the stately choreographed minuet around the Louvre. Naturally magnificent Turkish Iznik ceramics are displayed, which included some 3,000 16th and 17th century tiles that had been languishing in storage since the 1970’s. To rebuild the spectacular and enormous tiled wall now on display was: “A giant puzzle that took more than seven years to complete,” says Makariou.
The last section, spanning all eras of Islamic culture, focuses on the Arts of the Book, reflecting the various styles and scripts of manuscript illustration. These include calligraphy, painted borders and title letters, as well as bookbinding, stretching from North Africa via Iran, Turkey and Arabia to India.
More than merely inviting visitors to view a succession of artifacts, the aim is to take them on a memorable journey to the heart of Islamic civilization. Today the collections of the Department of Islamic Art continue to be enhanced by significant purchases, gifts, and bequests. All in all, the ongoing enrichment ensures that the Louvre is home to a collection that is one of the most valuable in the world.