PARIS — From its bulletproof case in the Louvre, Mona Lisa’s smile encountered an unfamiliar sight the other morning: emptiness. The gallery where crowds of visitors thronged to ogle her day after day was a void, deserted under France’s latest coronavirus lockdown.
Around the corner, the Winged Victory of Samothrace floated quietly above a marble staircase, majestic in the absence of selfie sticks and tour groups. In the medieval basement of the Louvre, the Great Sphinx of Tanis loomed in the dark like a ghost of granite behind bars.
Yet, with a rare and monumental immobility, the sounds of life stirred in the great halls of the Louvre.
The rat-a-tat of a jackhammer echoed from a ceiling above the Sphinx’s head. Rap music echoed from the bronze room under Cy Twombly’s ceiling in the Sully wing, near where workers were sawing parquet for a giant new floor. In the former apartments of Louis XIV, restorers wearing surgical masks climbed scaffolding to tap gold leaf onto ornate moldings.
The world’s most visited museum – nearly 10 million in 2019, mostly from overseas – is grappling with its longest closure since World War II as pandemic restrictions keep its treasures locked up. But without crowds that can reach up to 40,000 people a day, museum officials are seizing a golden opportunity to fine-tune a major renovation for returning visitors.
“For some projects, confinement has allowed us to do in five days what would have taken five weeks previously,” said Sébastien Allard, general curator and director of the Louvre’s paintings department.
Louvre lovers have had to make do with seeing masterpieces during the pandemic thanks to virtual tours and hashtags #LouvreAtHome and @Louvre Museum. Millions of viewers this month received a spectacular dose of the hit Netflix series Lupine, in which actor Omar Sy, playing a gentleman thief, stars in action-packed scenes in the Louvre’s best-known galleries and under the glass pyramid of IM Pei.
But virtual reality can hardly replace reality. Louvre officials hope the government will soon reopen cultural institutions to the public, although the date depends on the evolution of the virus.
In the meantime, a small army of around 250 craftsmen have been working since France’s latest lockdown came into force on October 30. Instead of waiting until Tuesday – the only day the Louvre closed – curators, restorers, curators and other experts are moving forward five days a week to complete major renovations that began before the pandemic and introduce new embellishments which they hope to complete by mid-February.
Some of the work is relatively simple, like dusting the frames of nearly 4,500 paintings. Some are Herculean, like the makeovers in the Egyptian Antiquities Hall and the Sully Wing. Nearly 40,000 explanatory plaques in English and French hang next to the works of art.
Even before the pandemic, the Louvre was looking closely at crowd management as mass tourism meant many galleries were choked with tour groups. While travel restrictions have reduced visitor numbers, the museum will limit entry to reservation ticket holders when it reopens to adhere to health protocols.
More changes are planned — like new interactive experiences, including yoga sessions every half hour on Wednesdays near masterpieces by Jacques-Louis David and Rubens, and workshops where actors act out scenes from famous paintings in front of the canvas .
“It’s a legend to say that the museum is alive and that people have the right to do these things here,” said Marina-Pia Vitali, deputy director of interpretation who oversees the projects.
On a recent visit to the halls, I felt a thrill as I watched the Venus de Milo rise from its pedestal — minus the glow of iPhones — and admired, at leisure, the sheer fabric drape chiseled into spotless marble.
In the cavernous Red Room – home to monumental French paintings including Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor at Notre-Dame and the Raft of the Medusa, depicting gray-skinned souls clinging to life – there was uplifting not to be swept away by the crowd.
In the Egyptian wing, antiquities experts have cleaned a two-ton granite stele that will dominate a new entrance. Workers are also renovating the Mastaba of Akhethotep, part of an Egyptian tomb that is among the Louvre’s most popular artifacts, in a dust-covered gallery strewn with saws and hammers.
Sophie Duberson, a restorer, took a child’s toothbrush and gently scrubbed the hieroglyphics from the stele, which give instructions for reviving Senusret, head of the Egyptian treasury in the Twelfth Dynasty, in the afterlife.
Vincent Rondot, director of Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre, inspected a six-story temporary support structure that had been built around the Mastaba, where a new, angular entrance wall would be erected in time for the expected crowds to return.
“Nobody is celebrating the virus,” Mr. Rondot said, as sparks flew from a nearby worker’s cutting tool. “But we can be happy with this situation because it allows us to concentrate on work.”
At the same time, social distancing protocols limit the number of workers allowed in enclosed spaces, which can sometimes hinder progress.
The craftsmen applying the gold leaf in the bedrooms of Louis XIV, for example, had to remove the masks to blow on the paper-thin metal. Workers should stay away from each other, so fewer people can do the job and the job can take longer.
The pandemic has also wreaked havoc on the planning of special exhibitions. The Louvre loans around 400 works a year to other museums and receives many loans for special exhibitions.
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“It’s really complicated because all the museums in the world are changing their planning,” Allard said.
As governments order new restrictions to contain a resurgence of the virus, specials are being pushed back. A loan earmarked for exhibitions at multiple museums can be caught in lockdowns, making it difficult to deliver promised artworks, he said.
On a small metal cart nearby, the self-portrait of a young Rembrandt, resplendent in a casual black beret, thick gold necklace and confident smile, rested in an ornate oval frame. The 1633 blockbuster had been loaned to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but was stuck there for three months due to coronavirus travel restrictions. A few days earlier, he had returned home to the Louvre by truck through the undersea Channel Tunnel linking Britain and France.
Blaise Ducos, chief curator of the Louvre’s collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings, usually accompanies loans to and from their destination, but could only watch Rembrandt’s removal via video. He drove to Calais to collect the masterpiece as it left the Chunnel, and finally supervised its rehanging in the Rembrandt room of the Louvre.
“We are happy to have him back,” Mr. Ducos said.
Nearby, workers scaled a rolling scaffold to remove a huge Van Dyck painting of Venus asking Vulcan for arms. Destined for an exhibition in Madrid, the painting passed through the Dutch halls, past Vermeer’s astronomer studying an astrolabe, before getting stuck in front of a small door in the Rubens room.
Workers turned the painting on its side and slid it on pillows to the next gallery, where it would then be packed and – pandemic restrictions permitting – shipped.
“Covid was a case of force majeure,” Mr Allard said, as a duo of Dutch paintings was hoisted to replace the Van Dyck. “At the moment we have so many question marks – it’s hard to know what the situation will be in two, three or four months,” he said.
“But despite the Covid, we continue to work as always,” continued Mr. Allard. “We have to be ready to welcome the public back.”