Since the late 12th century, the Louvre has played a role in central Paris. Built along the banks of the Seine River, the original structure has metamorphosised through the centuries. In the late 1690s, Louis XIV instituted an order for a sculpture gallery, which drew large crowds to its doors. After more than two centuries as a royal residence, the fortress-turned-palace was opened to the public by the order of the French Revolutionary government. Today, the museum’s collection is one of the richest in the world. From antiquity through the mid-19th century, the museum represents 11,000 years of human civilization and culture. Among the Louvre’s relics and paintings in its vast collection are its sculptural masterpieces.
The Winged Victory of Samothrace (190 B.C.) was unearthed in 1863 by French Vice-Consul to Adrianople, Charles Champoiseau, in the northwest region of Aegean. With a sweeping wingspan, the sculpture was discovered in a grotto on a rocky hillside, a monument to memorialize a naval victory. Sculpted from Parian and Grey Lartos marble, the decorative richness of the piece makes it a Hellenistic sculptural masterpiece. Originally, Victory stood on the marble bow of a sculpted warship, overlooking the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on the island of Samothrace. With her body slightly twisted, she braced herself against the gusting headwind, as her sheer garments billowed in the bluster.
In white marble, Antonio Canova’s Neoclassical Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (1793) was first commissioned by Colonel John Campbell. The sculpture is derived from the story of Psyche, who emblematizes the trials that the soul must withstand in exchange for true happiness and eternal life. When the gods decided to allow Cupid, Psyche’s hand in marriage, according to her immortality, they made her the goddess of the soul. For this work, Canova encapsulated true love. Cupid lifted her in a delicate embrace, while Psyche slowly nuzzled Cupid’s head between her hands.
From the ancient burial ground in Saqqara, The Seated Scribe (4th Dynasty, 2620-2500 B.C.) is considered one of the most significant works in the Louvre Egyptian collection. In painted limestone, the sculpture was delicately sculpted down to the details of the fingernails. Seated cross-legged, the scribe’s white kilt is stretched taut over his knees. In his left hand, he holds a rolled papyrus scroll. One of the most striking features about the scribe is his inlaid eyes, made of red-veined white magnesite, with a fragment of “slightly truncated rock crystal” which acted as the iris. The crystal fronts were carefully polished while the eyes were affixed with large copper clips welded on the back.
Discovered near the Baths of Diocletian in Rome in 1608, the Sleeping Hermaphroditos, is a Roman work from the second century A.D. It was one of the most admired sculptural masterpieces of the Borghese Collection. The son of Hermes,’ carved with a voluptuously curved body like a woman is unified with the nymph Salmacis. The narrative chronicled Hermaphroditos’ rejection of Salmacis. Unable to abandon him, the nymph persuaded Zeus to merge their bodies together for eternity. Sculpted in marble, Hermaphroditos lies asleep on a mattress that was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese to the Baroque Italian sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1619.
In 1820, the Venus de Milo, the ancient statue of Aphrodite (100 B.C.), was discovered on the Aegean island of Melos. Carved by Alexandros, the Hellenistic sculpture sections were carved separately and then fixed in place with vertical pegs. Her arms were never found. Fixation holes remain suggesting that the goddess wore jewelry and headband. Considered “classical in tradition,” the slightly larger-than-life statue is one of the most well-known works of Ancient Greek sculpture.
Michelangelo began carving the Rebellious Slave in 1513. Originally, it was designed as part of the Prisoner series, and an initial funerary monument project planned by and for Pope Julius II’s mausoleum. However, on the pope’s death, the project was changed due to financial reasons. Carved in a slightly coarser manner than the other statues in the series, the body of the Rebellious Slave appears to be engaged in a violent struggle. Incomplete and shrouded in mystery as to its true significance, Michelangelo donated the sculpture to Roberto Strozzi, a Florentine exile who brought it to France and presented it to the French king Francis I.
Ministers under two French kings envisioned a public art museum in Paris that would be the unrivaled and the envy of Europe. At the peak of the French Revolution, the Louvre opened its doors to the public, and soon became the archetypal for subsequent museums of art. From Middle Eastern antiquities up to Neoclassicism, the Louvre’s sculpture collection, acquired over the centuries, is still considered one of the finest in the world.
By Dawn Levesque