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Louvre galleries fulfil Eastern promise

11 January 2013

Nicholas Cranfield on the recently opened Islamic pavilion

THE new pavilion of Muslim art at the Louvre, designed by Rudy Ricciotti and the veteran Mario Bellini, and inaugurated by President Hollande last year, has transformed one courtyard of the palace with a sympathetic brilliance rare even in architectural gallery design.

Ricciotti was born in Algeria in 1952, and there is something inescapably North African about the way in which the roof of the pavilion, which has been described as a dragonfly's wing, floats over the courtyard. In 1980, he attended architecture school in Marseille, and in 2006 he won the French Grand Prix d'Architecture. Earlier in the year, his equally astounding Jean Cocteau museum opened in Menton.

Bellini could scarcely be more different; he was born in Fascist Milan in Anno XIII (1935), and has long been regarded among Italy's foremost architects. He is responsible for the new Verona Forum complex and the Turin Cultural Centre.

Islamic treasures have been a part of the French national collection since the 1793 sack of the royal palace, and include the famous "font" of St Louis. This Syrian or Egyptian bowl dates to the third decade of the 14th century, and was used from at least 1606 for the baptism of French princes. The growing collection found permanent exhibition space only in 1993, in one the subterranean galleries, measuring just 800 square metres. It always felt much like an afterthought.

After the creation of the department of Islamic Art (2003), a competition was launched to house some of the 14,000 items in the collection. (A further 3500 are on loan from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.) Ricciotti and Bellini won (2005) with a clever solution that eschewed the existing lines of the neo-classical facades around the Cour Visconti.

Instead, the architects dug down 12m in the heart of the courtyard, and suspended what appears from the side to be a golden veil that undulates like an enormous flying carpet from eight irregular columns. They thereby avoided allowing Western and European architectural norms to constrain collections that spring from a very different culture elsewhere.

Built at a cost of €40 million, two levels display 3000 objects over 2800m². By way of comparison, the Jameel gallery is able to display only 400 works from the reported 19,000 in the V&A's collection (Arts, 29 September 2006), while the Met in New York shows just one tenth of the 12,000 items in its trust.

Once I had become accustomed to the lack of height - an optical illusion that reminded me of first entering the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, where the dome is so flat that the surrounding hall feels dangerously low - I followed the flow of the oddly angled glass boxes that serve as display cabinets.

Treasure after treasure unfolded, from the seventh to the 19th centuries, over three floors. Above ground, even on a grey, wet Parisian afternoon, there was a soft warmth in the light, whereas the lower galleries are deliberately darkened spaces with well illuminated displays.

In an act of sheer genius, the opportunity has been taken to site the Louvre's Near Eastern collection of Roman and Byzantine works around the lower level, while the antiquities of pre-classical Greece and Coptic and Roman Egypt are at the courtyard level. This brings together cultures and civilisations that rose and fell in many of the same geographical areas.

At one point, one looks down over a balcony on to the Phoenix mosaic from Daphne, a suburb of Antioch on the Orontes (Antakya in modern Turkey), and that of the Lebanese Church of St Christopher at Qabr Hiram (575). This was uncovered by the philosopher and linguist Ernest Renan in 1860/61, shortly before his controversial and influential historical work Vie de Jésus appeared (1863). They follow the clear pattern of the nave and aisles of the palaeo-Christian church much like those in Petra or at Umm al Rassas in Jordan. The mosaics of the Grand Mosque of Damascus (painted copies) make for telling comparison.

The vestibule of a Mameluke house from Qasr Rumi in Cairo (c.1475/1500), all five and a half tonnes of it, has been re-erected to form a narthex-like crossing from the Daru gallery to the main central hall. The limestone blocks composing this had been shipped from Egypt some time between 1880 and 1884, and had remained in packing crates till 1999. Rebuilding it for its original purpose as a gateway is just one of the myriad of successes achieved by the designer of the gallery, Renaud Piérard.

At the Musée du Louvre, Rue de Rivoli, Paris. Phone 00 33 1 40 20 50 50. www.louvre.fr

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