This is one post in a series of articles about our visit to Paris.
We spent an afternoon at the Louvre, my sister, mom, Dale and I, and what a completely inadequate amount of time it was. Of course, even if we had a week to devote to this enormous museum, it wouldn’t be enough, what with the 35,000 works it has on display. But we did the best we could in the time we had.
We knew that the Louvre was a must-see, but other than that, our knowledge about this famous museum was limited to the basics: that it contains the Mona Lisa and a bunch of other famous pieces of art, that it has a huge pyramid out front, that it’s enormous, and that it played an important role in The DaVinci Code (there I go, getting world knowledge from a work of fiction again).
But it’s so much more remarkable than we realized. The Louvre has eight distinct collections containing 380,000 pieces of art (only about 10% are on display), and they range in age from thousands of years old to modern works. The diversity of objects we saw in a single visit was mind-boggling. No wonder it’s the world’s most popular museum–there’s something for everyone.
Even before we made it inside the museum, we were in awe. The grounds themselves are stunning. The museum is housed in the Louvre Palace, originally a 12th-century fortress that was renovated in the 14th century and turned into a royal residence for King Charles V. It was added onto over the centuries to become the beautiful palace that it is today. In 1682, Louis XIV moved the his home to the Palace of Versailles, and the Louvre was then used to hold the royal art collection.
With 652,300 square feet of exhibition space, the Louvre is immense, second in size only to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. We were going to have to cruise through the exhibits at a fast pace, so we borrowed a wheelchair for my mother, as walking through the many galleries and halls would’ve been challenging for her. The staff was incredibly accommodating, loaning us a wheelchair and making it easy for us to navigate the museum by letting us use elevators and back entrances when needed.
Usually, Dale takes the pictures and I just wander about and give superfluous orders: “Make sure you get a shot of the Venus de Milo!” (Duh.) But today he was helping mom, so some of the picture-taking responsibilities fell to me, and that is why we have a gazillion photos of the chandeliers in Napoleon III’s apartments and not much in the way of masterpiece paintings:
At any rate, here are some of the highlights of our visit to the Louvre:
The Louvre Pyramid
The Louvre Pyramid, designed by the American architect I.M. Pei and inaugurated in 1988, stands outside the museum over the main court entrance. According to the museum website, it consists of 673 glass panes. Now, there’s a rumor that it has exactly 666 glass panes (666 being the “number of the beast” and typically associated with Satan), and this story was perpetuated by Dan Brown in The DaVinci Code, but it’s an urban legend!
The idea for the installation of a pyramid on the grounds of the museum caused a buzz of controversy when it was first proposed, as many felt that a gigantic glass pyramid didn’t match the classic aesthetic of the Louvre Palace, but it has since become a huge tourist draw and is one of the most iconic structures in Paris. There is also a Pyramide Inversée (Inverted Pyramid), completed in 1993, a skylight that looks like an upside-down version of the Louvre Pyramid. It hangs over the Carrousel du Louvre, an underground shopping mall, and there are several smaller pyramids on the grounds as well.
The Code of Hamurrabi
The Code of Hammurabi, part of the Louvre’s Near-Eastern Antiquities collection, is a Mesopotamian code of law that was enacted by Hammurabi, the sixth Babylonian king. It’s carved on a 7.4-foot-tall stone stele (pillar) and dates back to around 1754 BC.
Dale was particularly stoked to see this artifact because that it represents a big step forward in the development of an advanced civilization. The Code of Hammurabi is one of the oldest deciphered writings in the world and one of the earliest examples of codified law. It consists of 282 laws as well as a guide for punishments and governs a wide range of issues, including wages, property rights, divorce, slander, inheritance, and sexual behavior. Various concepts familiar to us today can be found in the code, including the concept of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” as well as the notion of innocence until proven guilty, and both the accuser and the defendant were given the right to provide evidence in support of their cases.
The stele was discovered by archeologists in 1901 in the ancient city of Susa, in modern-day Iran.
In its Egyptian Antiquities collection, the Louvre has one of the largest collections of artifacts from Egyptian civilizations in the world, dating from 4000 BC to the 4th century AD. Here are a few items from the collection:
And more ancient stuff: Near Eastern Antiquities
In its Near Eastern Antiquities collection, the Louvre has thousands of ancient artifacts from Mesopotamia (Iraq), Persia (Iran), and the Levant (a geographical term referring to a large area of the eastern Mediterranean). Here are the some of the items from the collection that we liked best:
Decorative arts: Napoleon’s apartments and royal artifacts
One of the neatest exhibits, in its Decorative Arts collection, was Emperor Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s state apartments, which he used for receiving guests and entertaining. This fellow, known as Napoleon III, should not be confused with Napoleon I, his uncle, who was responsible for invading half of Europe. Napoleon III was President of the French Second Republic from 1848-1852, and when Parliament blocked him from running for a second term, he staged a coup d’état and became Emperor Napoleon III. He was known as a womanizer and disliked by many, but he was also the leader responsible for modernizing Paris and saving important buildings such as the Notre Dame from ruin.
The state rooms were built between 1854 and 1861 and include a drawing room, dining room, and bedroom, among others, and each was decorated with a lavish decadence befitting an Emperor.
The collection also included some serious jewelry:
Last but not least…the Mona Lisa
We had read in travel blogs that some people are disappointed by the Mona Lisa; for such a-larger-than-life painting, it’s so small, just 30 by 21 inches. So we agreed before going to the museum that we would avoid having any expectations about her whatsoever. As a result, none of us were disappointed. It was thrilling to see her in person, absolutely thrilling.
There was of course a huge throng of people around the Mona Lisa, but because my mom was in a wheelchair, she and Dale got a front-row view of the painting. The employee who was monitoring the painting guided them through the crowd and behind the rope that cordoned off the area. He allowed them all the time they wanted to admire this painting and take pictures. Meanwhile Ronica and I stood in the crowd with the rest of the chumps and waited our turn to see the painting!
A little history behind this masterpiece: the model for the Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo daVinci, is thought to be Lisa Gherardini, a housewife from Florence and mother of six. She was married to a silk merchant named Francesco del Giocondo who likely commissioned the painting. The root of the painting’s title is thought to come from the word Monna, an Italian word meaning “Madame.”
The Mona Lisa is considered a masterpiece because of the technical skill daVinci brought to it. For years he studied the mathematics of the human body and even dissected cadavers so that he could better understand human anatomy, including the mechanism of the muscles that curve the lips into a smile. What he achieved with the Mona Lisa was groundbreaking: he captured Lisa’s face in all its complexity, depicting an intelligent, living woman with a perfectly-depicted, mysterious smile. Smiles were a particularly difficult movement to capture on canvas, and the Mona Lisa is considered a marvelous technical achievement.
Some more facts about the lovely lady:
After daVinci’s death in 1519, King Francis I bought the painting for 12,000 francs (about $10 million today). It remained in the possession of French royalty for centuries, until the French Revolution, when all of the royal art fell into the hands of the French people; soon after, however, Napoleon Bonaparte came into power and hung “Madame Lisa,” as he referred to her, in his bedroom. He was supposedly so infatuated with Madame Lisa that he fell in love with an Italian woman who resembled her, and coincidentally, the woman, Teresa Guadagni, was a descendent of Lisa Gherardini’s!
The Mona Lisa arrived at her permanent home in the Louvre in 1815, where she was first seen by the public. Few paid much attention to her until art critics studying her in the 1860s proclaimed that she was one of the best examples of Renaissance painting around. Still, she wasn’t well-known outside the art world until, on August 21, 1911, she was stolen; once news of the theft got out, she became an international sensation overnight. Pablo Picasso was an early suspect and was arrested along with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, but they were soon released.
It took two years to recover the painting. The thief was Italian Vincenzo Peruggia, a handyman at the Louvre. His intention was to sell the Mona Lisa, but she quickly became too hot to sell. When caught, Peruggia claimed that his motivation for the theft was to return her to her home country, but, according to several accounts that I read, he also gave another reason–love. “I fell victim to her smile. I fell in love with her,” he is supposed to have said during his trial.
Ever since her theft, the Mona Lisa has been one of the world’s most popular paintings. She even has her own mailbox for all of the love letters she receives. Many have proclaimed their love for her in essays and poems, and at least a few men have committed suicide over her: in 1915, a lovesick man shot himself to death in front of the painting, and another, an artist named Luc Maspero, left a note that said, “For years I have grappled desperately with her smile. I prefer to die,” and then jumped out of a fourth-story window.
Besides being stolen, the painting has also been assailed with flying objects at least four times in the past—someone threw a rock at her; another flung acid, and still another, red paint, and in 2009 a Russian woman angry at being denied French citizenship took her revenge by throwing a souvenir mug purchased in the gift shop. The painting is now protected by a climate-controlled, bulletproof glass case.
Believe it or not, there are other paintings in the Louvre, thousands of them, including some masterpieces by the likes of Raphael and Michelangelo, as well as other works by da Vinci and many paintings by France’s greatest artists.
Here’s one last photo, taken during our lunch break. The Louvre has several cafes, and we opted for the cheapest one, which offered sandwiches and chips and great outdoor seating on one of the patios. The four of us enjoyed sitting outside on this sunny Sunday afternoon, talking about everything we’d seen, catching our breath, and feeding scraps of bread to the ubiquitous pigeons. The photo below is of one of the hundreds of statues that are positioned along the exterior of the building, and they stand looking down on the expansive courtyard below. It’s just one of the many little details that make this place so special.
In the next post, I’ll talk about the Louvre’s sculptures. While we were in awe of everything we saw at this amazing museum, we probably had the most fun exploring the museum’s vibrant collection of sculptures!