PARIS When I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid opened at the Louvre more than 20 years ago, many argued that this 70-foot-tall structure had destroyed the classical beauty of one of the world’s great museums. But today, as crowds wait on long lines outside the pyramid, the Louvre’s main entrance, what once seemed audacious has become as accepted a part of the city’s visual landscape as the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe.
Now the museum is again risking the public’s wrath as it introduces the most radical architectural intervention since the pyramid in 1989.
Designed to house new galleries for Islamic art, it consists of ground- and lower-ground-level interior spaces topped by a golden, undulating roof that seems to float within the neo-Classical Visconti Courtyard in the middle of the Louvre’s south wing, below the museum’s most popular galleries, where the Mona Lisa is hung.
Ten years in the making, the $125 million project has been financed in part by the French government, along with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, who gave the Louvre $20 million toward the galleries, the largest single monetary gift given to the museum.
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The museum’s “luminous veil,” or “flying carpet” as it has been called, covers 30,000 square feet of gallery space on the ground and lower floors.
The new galleries, four times as large as the space devoted to Islamic art at the Louvre, house a collection spanning 1,200 years of history, from the 7th through the 19th centuries, and includes glass works, ceramics, metalwork, books, manuscripts, textiles and carpets.
Their opening comes 10 months after the Metropolitan Museum of Art introduced galleries dedicated to the arts of Islam. The Met, to avoid defining the collection solely in terms of religion, chose an unusually long title for its spaces, “The Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia.” The Louvre, on the other hand, is calling its galleries simply, “Islam.”
“This is the way the world has spoken about Islam, not only the religion but the civilization,” said Sophie Makariou, the Louvre’s director of Islamic art, insisting that the name is not an oversimplification. “We were out to tell the history of these people. It’s as complicated as a textile. There are many different threads and a lot of different kinds of civilizations who built this world.”
And while the Met’s installation is organized mainly by geography, the Louvre has arranged its objects chronologically. The collection draws both from the Louvre’s own holdings of about 14,000 artworks and artifacts representing the breadth of the Islamic world from Spain to India and from the collection of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, which is contributing 3,500 works on permanent loan.
The Islamic collection includes prized objects that have been on view at the Louvre for years, like an intricately inlaid 14th-century metal basin from the Middle East known as the Baptistery of St.-Louis, Ottoman jade bowls that belonged to Louis IV and an early-11th-century Egyptian rock crystal ewer from the royal abbey of St.-Denis.
But now there will also be scores of artworks and objects that have not been displayed before.
Ottoman Empire tiles
One of the most intriguing discoveries, Makariou said, and the one that gave rise to the most challenging undertaking of the project, was the group of some 3,000 16th- and 17th-century ceramic tiles from the Ottoman Empire that had been languishing in storage since the 1970s.
“Many of them didn’t even have accession numbers,” she said. Each tile was photographed, recorded and a database created, and then a team of curators, conservators and mount makers spent two years working every day to figure out how to arrange them in a convincing display.
“It was a giant puzzle that took more than seven years to complete,” Makariou said.
A corridor outside her office is papered with the thousands of color printouts, each representing a tile, that the team used in assembling the last display visitors will see.
“It’s a pure creation, but we wanted to give the impression of what an Ottoman wall looked like,” Makariou said.
Egyptian Mamluk portal
Also extremely complicated to create – or recreate – was the Mamluk Porch, an ensemble of about 300 stones that once formed the vault and walls of a vestibule at the entrance to the home of a ruler of the Egyptian Mamluk dynasty in Cairo at the end of the 15th century.
The portal, Makariou discovered, was part of a vestibule that had been disassembled in late 1887. The stones had been packed in crates and stored in Cairo and then sent to France by ship, presumably to be shown in the Exposition Universelle of 1889, the year the Eiffel Tower was built.
But they were never exhibited and were put in storage and forgotten about until their discovery in early 2000 in a museum in the South of France. The restorers and the architectural team on the project also discovered 11 more drawings of the portal in the National Institute of Art History in Paris that were made by a French architect in Cairo between 1880 and 1884.
The stones were taken out of storage and shipped north to Paris, and the portal was recreated from the drawings. Weighing 5 tons, it illustrates the building techniques that were used at that time as well as the style of decoration – displays of geometric eight-point stars and hexagons; stylized floral motifs in two shades of limestone – of Mamluk architecture.
“It’s been kind of a thriller,” Makariou said of the project. “Suddenly this great piece of architecture appears that illustrates the grandeur of Cairo during this very exceptional dynasty.
The the new galleries, she said, “enrich the picture of Islamic art for the general public.”