“We’ll always have Paris.” Remember that famous line from the classic film Casablanca? Rick sure knew what he was talking about when he said his final goodbye to Ilsa. You change, your circumstances change, and the world changes around you, but “Paris stays with you.” For as long as I can remember, I had wanted to visit Paris. Beginning when I studied French in high school and later at university, I was consumed with the idea of one day being able to visit the “city of lights.” Of all the places I had dreamed about one day seeing, for some inexplicable reason, Paris was always near the top of my list. The lure of the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, the Arc du Triomphe, Notre Dame, and the Champs Elysee all screamed for a firsthand look. Now, as I reflect upon my years of travel, I am delighted that I followed that dream. I have been to Paris many times and each time I go, no matter what I may skip because I have already experienced it, I always visit the Louvre Museum. Why? Because among its approximately 380,000 objects, there are tens of thousands that have escaped my admiring eye.
The Louvre is one of the most iconic landmarks in all of France. In fact, at first glance, the Louvre seems more like an elegant European castle rather than a museum. That’s because it originated as a medieval fortress dating to the 12th century. That is when King Philippe Auguste’s finest engineers set to work around 1190 when he left to fight in the Crusades. They created this square structure with a moat and circular defensive towers. It was designed as a garrison fortress situated on the outskirts of the city. Then in the 16th century, King Francis I built a modern palace in the Italian Renaissance style. All the successive kings until the 19th century added buildings, incorporating matching materials and styles. This explains why the Louvre is so huge today. It became a museum in 1793 and attracts more than 10 million tourists each year. The museum has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is number 13 on the Smithsonian’s list of “28 Places to See before You Die.” The Louvre is the first entry in the fourth category of these 28 places. That fourth category is called “Triumphs of Vision” and includes the Zen Garden of Kyoto, Japan, the Uffizi Gallery, of Florence, Italy and Fallingwater, located near Bear Run, Pennsylvania.
Some people say that Disneyland is the happiest place on earth. For me, the happiest places are the ones steeped in history but that also highlight the creative genius of the finest artists who chronicle and interpret our world. Perhaps it is the “arm-chair” historical streak in me that perpetually draws me here and makes me want to “see it all.” I have come to understand, however, that this is an impossible goal. The Lonely Planet guidebook states that it would take about nine months to examine every piece inside the Louvre. The tens of thousands of exhibits date from prehistoric times to the 21st century. It is as if all of human history parades before your eyes. The exhibition area is a remarkable 652,300 square feet.
The building itself it a stunning piece of work both inside and outside. Spanning four floors, three wings (the Sully, the Denon, and the Richelieu), as well as a number of courtyards, the Louvre is a massive and impressive place. I found it easy to imagine the members of the royal court going about their daily lives in its hallways and on its grounds. The whole place feels like it could be part of the Versailles castle. The long, wide hallways, the narrow windows, the impressive chandeliers, and the high, vaulted ceilings often adorned with exquisite artwork are just some of the special touches that are reminiscent of a place of royalty.
Among the more popular exhibits at the Louvre is the original Venus de Milo, an armless statue of the Greek goddess Aphrodite that welcomes visitors from across the Louvre Pyramid. The sculpture is more than two centuries old, yet it still serves as solid evidence that beauty is ageless. Also, high on the list of virtually every tourist is Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Even though one must view this work behind a thick enclosure of bulletproof glass, it still provides a special kind of thrill even to those who know little about art. Looking right into the eyes of Mona Lisa herself prompted me to imagine how skilled the artist was to portray someone with such an enigmatic expression that at once is both alluring and aloof. The painting, done in oil on wood, measures only 21×30 inches, but it still enjoys universal fame. Many stand before this work almost transfixed by “Mona Lisa’s smile.” The painting is so central to the Louvre that it has its own room. Since the painting first arrived at the Louvre in 1815, “Mona Lisa” has received many love letters and flowers from admirers. She even has her own mailbox!
In addition to the Mona Lisa. there more than 35,000 items on display among the eight curatorial departments. These include paintings by famous Italian masters, sculptures, and various objects d’art from all over the world. Some of my favorite departments include: (1) Egyptian artifacts, displayed in 20 rooms, dating from 4,000 BC to 4th century AD. This collection is one of the largest and finest Egyptian collections in the world. (2) The Near Eastern antiquities’ collection that spans a period of 9,000 years, from prehistoric to early Islamic Period, and covers the area from North Africa to the Indus Valley and Central Asia, as well as from the Black Sea to the Arabian Peninsula. (3) The Greek, Etruscan, and Roman collection that contains artworks from Neolithic times to 6th century AD.
By 1874, the Louvre had evolved into its present almost rectangular shape. Then in 1983, French President Francois Mitterrand proposed the Grand Louvre plan to renovate the building and to relocate the Finance Ministry, allowing space for even more displays. During this renovation, the architect, I. M. Pei, proposed a glass pyramid to stand over a new entrance to the Louvre. The pyramid rests upon a clear base that permits visitors to see the underground lobby. This renovation was completed in 1989, but not without some controversy. The construction of the giant pyramid triggered many years of strong and lively aesthetic and political debate such as (1) that the pyramid is inconsistent with the basic design of the Louvre; (2) that the pyramid was a symbol of death in ancient Egypt; (3) some fanatics within Christian right pointed to the pyramid’s 666 glass panes as a symbol of the “Beast” mentioned in the Book of Revelation (the entire structure is based on the number 6). This specific myth resurfaced in 2003, when Dan Brown incorporated it into his best-selling novel “The Da Vinci Code.” In that work of fiction, Professor Langston suggests that the pyramid, built at the French President explicit request, had been constructed of exactly 666 panes of glass. In reality, however, the French President never specified the number of panes to be used in the construction of the pyramid.
All intrigue aside, the Louvre challenges me to learn more about the past and to appreciate the unbelievable talents of those artists who chronicle it for us. I cannot even count how many times I have walked the stupendous galleries of the Louvre, and every time I do, I drink in its rich blessings that descend upon me like a gentle spring rain. The choicest collections of the art of the West are on display in form and coloring that, for me, far exceeds any other museum in the world.
Next time: “The Ryoanji Temple: A Zen Garden in Kyoto, Japan”