The reopening of French museums gave us our first opporunity to visit the Louvre after we had lived in Paris for five months. Natasha purchased tickets for us to arrive at 9:30 on a Saturday morning, and when we awoke, we pressed ahead even though we were both still feeling sleepy. Because the Louvre anchors one end of the main axis of the city (extending west-northwest through l’Arc de Triomphe), we were spoiled for choice in how to get there. We changed subways at Pace de la Concorde to line 1, and it deposited us at the museum’s underground station.
The subterranean arrivals hall has a lot in common with the duty-free shopping arcades in some international airports; the city seems to have realized that people coming to the Louvre have a little extra money to burn, and so visitors walk past many luxury goods for sale before braving the line at admissions. I think many people are aware that I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid appears in the courtyard between the two wings of the museum, but did you know that a corresponding inverted glass pyramid points underground nearby? We were able to pass the security check there even though we arrived ten minutes before our 9:30 appointment for entrance.
The space below the main glass pyramid gives access to the main museum, the special exhibitions, and the auditorium. It’s pretty vast, reflecting the normal crowds entering the museum. Seeing it with just a couple dozen people present made me realize that Paris tourism is still far off its normal pace, despite the reopenings. Natasha was able to download a PDF of the Louvre map to her phone via the posted QR code, but I tried using the posted “bit.ly” link with no success. Natasha chugged her water bottle when she realized she would not be able to bring it into the museum.
Since we entered on the “-1” level, we had many flights of stairs to reach the Italian paintings on the “+1” level (remember that each floor of the Louvre is much taller than in an ordinary building). Even though the foot traffic inside was much less than usual, we thought it best to see Mona Lisa before crowds picked up. Helpfully, the museum has posted little hints on the entrance path to help visitors find Leonardo da Vinci’s most popular work in the Italian Paintings area (many feature creative moustaches). When we reached the Winged Victory of Samothrace, poised majestically on the stair landing, I knew we were really close.
Rather than running to Mona Lisa, we lingered a little bit in the galleries outside. I did my best to “look up,” Natasha’s best advice for visiting palatial buildings, and the Louvre did not disappoint. The carvings lining the vaults are just stunning, and the 17th century Grande Gallerie (which once extended all the way to the Tuilleries Palace) offers quite a lot of gilt. I laughed when I realized that the incidental marble sculptures appearing along the way would be premiere exhibits in most museums, but at the Louvre they were just added decoration.
When we turned into the “Salle des États” exhibition space for La Joconde (French name for Mona Lisa), we realized just how few visitors were in the museum with us. The rope line would normally have us waiting for dozens of minutes until we finally reached the front of the queue to see the painting. Today, however, we were able to walk right up to the front of the queue to join the ten or so people waiting to see it. I am sure this will change once international flights are full of tourists again. For now, we enjoyed the chance to take unhurried photographs of ourselves with the work.
The Grande Gallerie continues from Italian paintings to those of Great Britain / the United States to those of Spain. Generally speaking, our walks took us through many portraits and religious paintings, with many of the latter reaching vast dimensions. I enjoyed Giotto’s 13th century image of St. Francis of Assisi receiving stigmata and Tristan’s “Vision of St. Francis of Assisi” among the latter, while Natasha was particularly enjoying the intense 16th century portraits by Titian. Because food history is a particular interest of hers, we paused before “Summer” and “Winter” from Arcimboldo‘s Four Seasons.
The Quai Branly Museum has made several of its artistic treasures from around the world available for viewing at the Louvre. I particularly liked a wooden carving by the Baoulé people of the Ivory Coast; the figure seemed ready to play a prank on us! I was also humbled to stand next to a terra cotta sculpture of wide-eyed faces from the Nok culture of Nigeria; the dating of the object is wildly uncertain (600 before common era to 600 common era), but even at the “young” end of that spectrum, the sculpture has lasted more than 1400 years. I was also delighted to see up close a carved basalt ancestor figure (moai) from Easter Island.
The Branly exhibits had brought us down to level 0 (ground floor) at the extreme west end of the southern wing. To return to the main museum, we needed to climb back up to the upper deck of the wing and head east. We redescended to level zero and then continued down to level -1 to see the European sculpture, near-Eastern and Egyptian art, and Islamic art areas. Of the first two areas, I would highlight the 1563 Mecury in Flight by Boulogne and a lovely lion from first century Italy. The funeral paintings of second- and third-century Egyptians were just as haunting to me during this visit as they were when I last visited the museum in 1994.
I was very glad that we could visit the new Islamic Art area of the museum; it is in a courtyard of level -1 on the south wing that has been ceilinged by an undulating wave of glass. A stylized bronze lion from the 12th or 13th century caught my attention, but the star of the show for me was a tenth century pyxis (storage box) carved from ivory. It was carved for the son of Abd al-Rahman III, the caliph in Andalusia who constructed his Madinat al-Zahra capital city near Cordoba. I remembered seeing a plaque that this object had been moved to another museum when we visited the museum at Cordoba, and here it was before us!
Having retraced our steps to reach the upper floor where the south wing touches the square court, Natasha was delighted to see the Galerie d’Apollon, which displays the French crown jewels. Her attention, however, was drawn by the items carved from precious and semi-precious stones used by the royal family. We saw items from agate, jasper, and lapis lazuli; some of them simply couldn’t be created today because we don’t have mines that produce large crystals of that sort! Having seen the diamond museum at Kimberley, I was glad to see the 140-carat Regent Diamond up close. I had hoped that I would find the French coronation sword “Joyeuse” in this area, but it seems to be residing at Versailles for now.
Having exhausted ourselves at the south wing, we found ourselves very unsure of how to reach the exhibits in the square court and in the north wing. Natasha was particularly keen to see the decorative arts area of the north wing, first floor. Several areas of the museum were closed, though, and we began to get the sense that “you can’t go there from here.” We dropped to the 0 level to move into the square court. I am glad we did, because we found the famous Greek Antiquities area that houses the Venus de Milo at one end and the Pallas de Velletri at the other. I laughed at my own surprise to realize that the “Venus” statue should properly be called “Aphrodite” since this statue was Greek in origin (~120 before common era). The island where she was found is Milos (or Μῆλος if you are an ancient Greek), so her common name is wrong on both counts!
We dropped another floor to see an area that told the story of the 14th century fortress that was the Louvre’s original structure, but I’ll discuss that in another post. I loved the sphinx guarding that entrance. We had hoped we could climb into the decorative arts area that Natasha wanted to see, but we couldn’t seem to get into the north wing. We ascended to the 0 level to try the crossing there, but no joy (we could have rounded the square court by going counter-clockwise on level 0, but we were both pretty tired by this point). We climbed to level 1 in hopes of finding a door to the north wing, but we were stymied again. We began looking at those worn monumental staircases with resentment. Having slogged to level 2, we found ourselves in a section devoted to French paintings.
My attention was arrested by a painting from the 1572 Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by Robert-Fleury. Natasha found a much happier 1839 image of the Giralda Tower at Seville by Dauzats; we were reminded of our honeymoon. I was very surprised to enter a room and see a famous painting of Frederick Chopin by Delacroix that graced the cover of my piano music book in college.
At last, Natasha’s batteries and mine had reached their limits. We had spent four hours browsing the museum, and it was time to find some food where we could sit down. We descended one last time to the -1 level to exit through the underground mall. We crossed the Seine at Pont du Carrousel and turned to walk alongside the river. I got the chance to point out the Institute of France, which was once the site of the massive (and notorious?) Tower of Nesle. When we reached the left-bank end of Pont Neuf, we turned away from the river on Rue Dauphine.
In no time at all, we had reached “Fajitas,” a Mexican food place that has good gluten controls. It might have been our most expensive meal so far in France, but we ate WELL.