What happens when we try to walk around at night in museums that we can no longer visit? A range of online virtual tours offer the possibility, but apart from the physical problems of reproduction – pixel resolution is insufficient, movement glitchy and jittery – the real difference is the loss of tactile and optical tension, missing dialogue from the feet sore and happy eyes. Online, we float ghostly through the hallways, spinning dizzyingly a hundred and eighty degrees, without a grumpy Toledo photographer with a selfie stick to bump into. Sit down and know that you are seated is the insistence of the meditation master, and Walk and watch knowing that you are walking and watching is the most complicated Zen of the museum experience: the physical and the pictorial, the squinting to see and the moments of transport of vision, must go hand in hand. The work is the, actually there as a physical fact, which you could touch, if you were allowed to. A book may be an object, but the Kindle edition of “Hamlet” is as much Hamlet as the manuscript (which no longer exists). Baldassare Castiglione’s portrait of Raphael exists at a specific point on the planet, and nowhere else, having started in a nameable place and traced through time, owner by owner and wall to wall. Reproductions reproduce themselves, and they often do well, but they cannot reproduce the sex appeal of visiting the museum, the carnal intersection of one physical object with another, you and him. That’s one thing there; you, one thing, here.
This truth is never so piercing as when one thinks of revisiting the Louvre in Paris in one’s head, for one’s essential experience is vastness and intimacy, which constantly collide, on a scale unmatched by any other gallery in the world. Closed for four months during the pandemic, the Louvre recently reopened, cautiously and by appointment only; but, like most of the great galleries in Europe, it remains off-limits to Americans who are still sullied. As Mark Twain, the archetypal weary American tourist, noted when visiting in the 1960s, the museum contains “miles of Old Master paintings”, but the experience of its Grand Gallery – a hallway, not a piece – is necessarily close. Even the large and small rooms that spring from its sides offer the possibility of an intimate encounter with the past. You look – well, you would look, if you could get within thirty feet of it, past the rampart of tourists for whom it is the destination of a European visit – the gallery’s most famous painting, “The Gioconda” by Leonardo (the one called, in English, the “Mona Lisa”), and you see painting, creaks, a smile, a non-smile, a mystery, a woman, a page of prose that is remembered (“She is older than the rocks she sits among”), and, if you allow proximity to overcome familiarity, a truly eerie alien portrait. If Leonardo was from another planet, as it sometimes seems l to have done, it would be an image of its geology, its flora and its queen.
Ten million people visited the Louvre last year, before France went into lockdown in March, and no museum can become so crowded without canceling its own purpose or replacing it with another purpose – the purpose of a conscientious hajj , to have been there. There are too many people trying to let anyone see. The construction of the “Grand Louvre”, begun in the 1980s, with a new entrance hall crowned by the IM Pei pyramid, was to organize and order the overcrowding, but only worsened the exhaustion. The long queues that wind around the pyramid in summer without a trace of shade are tiring to watch, let alone stand. And, once inside, the physical act of buying a ticket and getting your bearings is so time-consuming that it makes the time between wanting to visit and actually experiencing a work of art of a painful duration.
Yet the place is so big, so varied, so full of objects, and so beautifully messy that there is still, especially out of season, a chance to seep inside, instead of being there. regimented. A Saturday morning in one of the lower wings – say the Richelieu wing, opened in the 1990s – offers some alone time with overlooked delights, like the 16th-century Flemish tapestries called “Les Chasses de Maximilien”, which include a invigorating tale of the Emperor going hunting with his hounds and horses, attendants and whips on a winter’s morning, perfectly capturing the smoky air and enveloping Flemish woods while providing an extraordinary encyclopedia of canine types, some strange, others familiar.
Mysterious indeed, the Louvre is also delightfully mysterious in history, as shown by James Gardner in “The Louvre: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum” (Atlantic Monthly Press). Nobody knows why the Louvre is called the Louvre. You would think it has something to do with “Lutèce”, the Roman name for Paris, or something like that, but not at all; the origin of the name is as opaque as the French love of Johnny Hallyday. Even so, the name stuck through the transition from citadel site to showplace. The continuity represented by the Louvre is the continuity of the French State. Gardner recounts the long history of the Louvre, which begins around the 13th century, when it was only a castle, passing through its elevation into a palace, then, in the 17th century, its extension to serve as a building of offices for French royalty. During these centuries, the building only occasionally intersects with the history of art. A sort of false spring occurred when François I is said to have bought paintings from Leonardo in Amboise, at the beginning of the 16th century, three paintings, including this smiling lady, which remain the core of the collection. It was a cosmopolitan collection – the King of France, like many of his successors, displayed his power by demonstrating his taste, with the model of collecting as a form of exotic shopping already in place.
Photos were also commissioned and exhibited there. Peter Paul Rubens’ 17th century series apotheosizing the life of the mediocre Marie de Medici as Queen of France migrated very early into the royal collection, and remains both the apogee and the burlesque of a major art that is also a pure sycophant in power. At the end of the 17th century, Louis XIV bought a considerable number of paintings, but, as Gardner rightly says, he bought like a contemporary New York billionaire would buy, acquiring first-class names – then mainly Italian – without much distinct sensitivity evidence. Yet one large image after another entered his personal collection for the benefit of France, including what is, for some people’s money, the largest image in the Louvre, this Raphael portrait of the diplomat and author Italian Castiglione. Raphael, the most talented painter who ever lived, somehow compressed into a single frame all the easy painting and discreet humanity of Titian, while fixing, in the mixture of wisdom, intensity, sobriety and ironic good humor of Castiglione, the permanent form of the ideal author’s photo.
Gardner’s muscular and impatiently expert prose is reminiscent of Robert Hughes in his books about the city, ‘Barcelona’ and ‘Rome’. He engages in a few polemics along the way but has an unusual firmness, if latecomerviews of architecture and a keen, watchful and discerning eye – noting, for example, that the complex’s greatest architectural achievement, the 17th-century Colonnade, with its bas-relief pediment, is now so hidden, on the corner of the pyramid and the central courtyard, that “not one visitor to the Louvre in a hundred, perhaps in a thousand, will ever see this masterpiece”.
His account reminds us that we always blame one era for what belongs to the previous one, and among the truths of French history, we give the Revolution credit – or blame – for the historical processes and institutions that were underway long before 1789. The great public-private spaces of modernity – the restaurants and cafes with their crowds of classes and castes – were all nurtured during the Enlightenment, even as they flourished after the Revolution. Although the Louvre officially opened as an art gallery in 1793 – the start of the Terror – the idea of doing so had begun half a century before. The move of the court to Versailles under Louis XIV, in 1682, had left a huge volume of unused space, and even more was created by the expansion of the Tuileries Palace, to the west of the court where stands today the pyramid today. The desire to transform the prince’s palace into a palace of painting led, in the 18th century, to a series of exhibitions in the former royal residence – the kind of French salons which, by attraction and repulsion, would dominate French taste until to the First World War. World War.
The direction and planning of the nascent Louvre fortunately fell into the hands of two remarkable civil servants who, more than anyone else, are responsible for his character. The first was the nicknamed Charles-Claude Flahaut de la Billarderie, Count of Angiviller, appointed guardian of the king’s domains by Louis XVI. As Gardner tells us, he intended to establish a museum in the Grand Gallery and he undertook the heroic work, both through architecture and acquisition, of transforming a royal residence into an art gallery. d’Angiviller’s dream came to fruition in a financial accident almost impossible to imagine, given that the Louvre has been, for more than a century, the particular haunt of American tourists. The end of the American Revolution, we learn from Gardner’s story, helped fund the French museum. Once the War of Independence was over, the French government could begin to recover its loans to the American colonies, putting thirteen million pounds in the hands of d’Angiviller.
He began to collect good pictures, not greedily and haphazardly, like prestige prizes, but with a modern eye, dedicated to filling in the gaps in the collection. He sent his emissaries north, for example, to buy one of the great Rembrandts that sets the collection apart – the humane, anti-idealizing artist not at all an obvious choice for France’s aristocratic taste in the era. D’Angiviller also renovated the Grand Gallery itself, envisioning a huge iron and glass skylight that would illuminate the incoming images.
He lost his job at the time of the Revolution – he fled, for fear of also losing his head – but the post of museum director indeed went to an equally aesthetic and citizen curator, Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière, commonly called Roland. A Girondin liberal, he relied on the efforts of d’Angiviller, with their implicit appeal to an ever wider audience, and dreamed for the first time of a real museum: a synoptic collection telling the story of artistic creation in all its genres, available to all people. “It should be open to everyone and everyone should be able to place their easel in front of any painting or draw, paint or model as they wish,” he said. When the Louvre finally opened its doors as a museum in 1793, anyone could enter.