Centerpiece of Louvre Restoration Opens
The Richelieu wing, which once housed finance offices, now sparkles with artistic wonders
THE Louvre museum celebrates its 200th birthday on Nov. 18. On that same day, another perhaps more memorable event will take place: France's President Francois Mitterrand is expected to inaugurate the Richelieu wing of the Grand Louvre complex.Skip to next paragraph
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The opening of the wing, which forms the northern side of the Louvre palace's U-shape, marks the culmination of architect I.M. Pei's monumental 10-year, $1.2 billion project to revamp one of the world's richest museums. From 1871 until 1989 the Richelieu wing housed the Ministry of Finance which, after much resistance, was finally relocated, giving the Louvre the long-awaited chance to double its exhibition space.
Restoration began three years ago. Built in the mid-1850s under Napoleon III, the Richelieu wing had become a maze of offices and had to be almost gutted and rebuilt, with the exception of several period rooms - the salons Morny - that have been carefully preserved to maintain their original 19th-century opulence.
Mr. Pei chose two French architects, Michel Macary and Jean-Michel Wilmotte, to collaborate with him on the Richelieu project. Mr. Macary is responsible for much of the ground floor, including the two large courtyards, newly baptized Puget and Marly after a 17th-century sculptor and an 18th-century sculpture.
The Ministry of Finance had used the open courtyards as parking lots; Pei and Macary decided to cover them so that they could be used as exhibition space. The glass roof is supported by aluminum bars that filter the sunlight; a technique that Pei has used on other projects. French sculpture ranging from the Middle Ages to the 19th century will be exhibited in the Puget and Marly courtyards.
A third and smaller courtyard was also covered and named Khorsabad after the ancient Assyrian city and 8th-century palace. Elements from the palace are stunningly represented, including a section reproduced from photographs of the original layout found during archaeological excavations. A copy of one of the Khorsabad winged bulls in bas-relief, which is located in Chicago, was made to join its brother bulls in the Louvre collection.
THE remaining space on the ground floor will be used to exhibit Near-Eastern antiques. The smaller items are in glass cases designed by Mr. Wilmotte, who used an innovative system of fiber optics in tiny spotlights to diffuse the light, rather than the usual fluorescent lighting.
One level below, the Louvre can now show off its rich Islamic collection in its entirety - something the museum has never had the space to do before. Objects from Spain to India are exhibited in chronological order (8th century to 19th century) in 13 rooms, some with vaulted ceilings.
Pei has retained three 19th-century stairways from the original structure, and designed a streamlined escalator that leads to the first floor and the department of objects d'art, designed by Wilmotte.
The greatest challenge for Wilmotte was the problem of scale. Small objects and very large pieces, such as tapestries, had to cohabit in vast areas. A visit to the floor, which contains more than 3,000 objects, might begin with the Byzantine section, then on to articles from the Middle Ages and through two gallery spaces conceived to house the 16th-century tapestry series ``Maximillian's Hunters'' and ``The Story of Scipio.''