Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Brief Visit to the Louvre

Any visit to the Louvre that would do justice to the museum and its collections would, necessarily, not be brief. The Louvre ranks as one of the world's largest museums and its collections include indisputably the world's most celebrated works of art. So instead of a full account, here's a brief report on some aspects of an afternoon's visit.

The Louvre was originally a sober fortress, built along the Seine in 1190 by king Philippe August. The modern (i.e., 16th Century) Louvre on the site of fortress is the south wing of the Cour Carré, commissioned by Francois I. From the Left Bank, you can walk to the Louvre on the Pont des Arts.

Excavations for the 1989 "Grand Louvre" pyramid and associated remodeling revealed the foundations and moat of Philippe August's castle. Today you can walk around the moat and into the base of the Great Tower, some 15 meters in diameter.

The dry moat had served for centuries as a dumping spot for all sorts of discards. The Louvre's extensive exhibition of the building's history displays many of these items, including coins and clay pipes. The supports for the bridge across the moat still stand.

The Louvre's oldest room is the Crypt Sully (or Lower Hall), which dates from the 12th Century. The columns and vaulting were added between 1230 and 1240.

The Cour Napoleon, just west of the new pyramid, is jammed with traffic because the Louvre is a long building, and there aren't many ways for cars, buses and trucks to get across between the Rue de Rivoli and the quays of the Seine.

Other places in the building remain much quieter, even kind of lost. While some of the courtyards have been roofed over and turned into exhibition space for sculptures, others remain unrestored and tantalizingly inaccessible to the public except by looking through windows.

The great public spaces of the contemporary Louvre lie under I.M. Pei's glass pyramid, the emblem of the Grand Louvre project of the 1980s. I've never warmed to this project, which seemed like a space-age intrusion into Paris's largest-scale and most interesting building. After all, it took Versailles to supplant the Louvre as a palace. The pyramid does provide needed light for the museum's main lobby. The glass slopes and their adjacent basins make for some disconcerting views, though. For example, a couple of kids walked in the narrow gap between the pyramid and a basin, seemingly suspended in a futuristic world.

To stick with the museum's more classical aspects, the Louvre's long wings stretch from the Cour Napoleon to the Jardin des Tuileries. These wings house galleries that, for me, define a museum of art. This gallery is luminous and awe-inspiring. It's actually pretty easy to get lost in this vast set of spaces.

The painting collection includes unbelievably famous works, such as the Mona Lisa. You go from room to room, painting to painting, experiencing the shock of recognition, something like seeing a celebrity in a restaurant. For example, Ingres's Odalisque is today an iconic work, even if at first showing it generated controversy--not because of the nudity but because critics thought that the figure had extra vertebra in her spine!

Similarly, Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, in addition to being a great work of art, carries with it both the artist's political message and all of the additional meaning that the painting accumlated through its use as a symbol of freedom.

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