As the Louvre prepares to unveil its Arts of Islam wing, experts talk to Emmanuelle Landais about one of the museum's largest renovations, its most ambitious design project since the Pyramid and the fascinating history of Islamic art
Built with the Islamic veil in mind, the latest architectural addition to the Louvre museum in Paris is shaping up to be as spectacular an addition as its glass Pyramid was 20 years ago.
An inner courtyard of the 800-year-old museum and former palace has been transformed to serve as the backdrop for the impressive structure. Hailed as the museum's biggest design achievement since the completion of the Pyramid, and one of the largest renovations in the Louvre's history, the museum's new Arts of Islam wing was modelled on a delicate sheet of silk.
As one of the last such spaces available to the museum to expand into, the Cour Visconti was never before made available to the public. Erected within it, a curvilinear glass roof covered inside and out with sheets of golden metallic links will shelter art from the Islamic era, grouped together for the first time in one enormous gallery.
Opening to the public later this summer - there has been no exact date given - more than 18,000 artworks from the Arab world and Europe will be displayed in its rooms, some for the first time.
Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti, the Italian architects behind the glass-roofed structure, decided early on that the Cour Visconti would remain visible in order to achieve a "gentle and non-violent integration" of a decidedly avant-garde architectural design within a place of historic importance.
"The whole structure seems to be floating in mid-air," said Bellini during a media tour of the construction site last month. "There are no pillars, you see, and this was a very big challenge."
The roof, which proved to be a tricky build in particular, is supported only by eight very narrow tubes that are "leaning and dancing together" while carrying the weight of the veil to the bottom of the foundations, said Bellini.
The façades of the court were fully renovated and a 12-metre deep excavation was carried out to create the new space. The collections will be displayed over an area of roughly 3,500 square metres, subdivided into only two levels for which millions of cubic metres of earth had to be removed via a small 2.7m opening.
The first floor, at courtyard level, will house works from the seventh to the 10th centuries. The second, in the basement (or rather the "new" ground floor) will exhibit works from the 11th to the 19th centuries along with a prestigious collection of carpets.
The new museum area will be covered by what Bellini calls an "iridescent cloud" promoting natural light and diffusing a warm glow throughout the space. Thanks to this "luminescent covering", it will be possible to see the façades of the courtyard outside from inside.
The former French president Jacques Chirac set the project in motion in 2002 when he declared his wish to see a dedicated wing of Islamic art at the museum. The French state donated €31 million (Dh150m) to cover 30 per cent of the works. However, the cost of the construction and restoration for the project, which took more than four and half years, will have cost €98.5m.
The Louvre itself invested €1.5m, while the project's biggest sponsor, the Saudi Al Waleed Bin Talal Foundation, gave €17m as soon as the project was announced. A further €30m was raised from individual and corporate donations, while €26m came from the rulers of Morocco, Kuwait, Oman and Azerbaijan. The museum requires another €10 million to fully complete the project.
Despite its glass exterior, the level of light in the exhibition spaces will not exceed the lux level required for the proper conservation of artefacts on display. Among the many historic pieces of Islamic Art collected from the Arab world that will be exhibited is a "gorgeous" selection of metalware from Syria, said Sophie Makariou, head of the Islamic arts department.
Since 2006, all artefacts have been documented, weighed and photographed in the largest such inventory of its kind to help with renovation in preparation for the new wing. Nearly 2,000 Ottoman ceramic tiles were removed from their frames to be fully restored and an entire collection of Egyptian stained-glass windows was subjected to a scientific and technical study, indispensable for their upkeep.
Some of the most sacred collectibles will be on show alongside these items in the gallery.
"The Louvre has, for example, the best collection in the world of luxury inlaid metalware made in Syria during the 13th century, the Ayyubid period, and owns the most famous basin ever made during the Mamluk era (1250-1517), the so-called Baptistère de Saint Louis, from the royal collections," said Makariou.
The basin, inlaid with silver and gold, was made by the master metal craftsman Mohammed Ibn Al-Zain and depicts a finely crafted procession of Mamluk emirs with four horsemen thought to be personifications of different aspects of horsemanship.
"We have also masterworks originating in Andalusia and some tombstones from Arabia," added Makariou, referring to a famous ivory box: the Pyxis of Al-Mughira, from the year 968. Its exact purpose is uncertain, with guesses pointing to perhaps a jewellery box, or a remarkably decorated container to hold precious stones, make-up, or perfume. The box was intended for Prince Al-Mughira, son of the Caliph 'Abd Al-Rahman III.
"The archaeology of the Islamic period is a peculiar one ... There is no funerary archaeology, which means that most objects were found, very often broken, in the setting where they were used," she said. "Very often, as there were a lot of purely commercial diggings, the relevant information provided by a proper excavation was lost.
"The most precious objects of the past, metalwares or manuscripts, were preserved through collectors, whom history has not yet traced back as far as the Islamic realm," said Makariou.
One of the most recently acquired items by the museum, which will be on show in the new gallery, is a rare Safavid prayer rug, but some artworks will be put aside to be exhibited exclusively closer to their places of origin - the Louvre Abu Dhabi, due to open in 2015.
"Some pieces will be on loan and we have ... the opportunity to reserve some important pieces for Abu Dhabi," said Makariou. "Hence, some great pieces will not be on display in our gallery but will be on display in Abu Dhabi."
Little has been done to date to preserve, or even promote, Islamic art said Makariou. "But big progress has been made - the opening of the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, totally redone with the help of the Louvre, the Aga Khan Trust for culture and with a French designer, Adrien Gardère, is a wonderful example of what can be achieved. The Doha Museum of Islamic Art is remarkable. More things will come and are in progress," she said.
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