The louvre

Ralph Gardner Jr.: A Proxy Visit to the Louvre | Archives

GHENT, NY – It feels like another life on another planet. But it was actually last summer, when the words “social distancing” would have meant nothing to most of us, that my brother, James, drove me to a part of the Louvre museum in Paris that I had never visited before.

Descending the crystal pyramid of IM Pei, then entering the museum through the Sully pavilion takes you to the medieval Louvre, or what remains of it.

Built not as a palace or a museum for some of the world’s most famous paintings, but as a fortress by King Philip Augustus in the late 12th century, it takes a little imagination, but you can make out what was once the moat and the remains of a prison tower. My brother told me it was one of the tallest structures in Paris 700 years before the Eiffel Tower. The walls, several feet thick, are perhaps the most impressive part of what remains of the site.

We tend to take what a sibling says, especially when he’s the youngest and you’re the eldest, with a grain of salt and a few well-targeted put-downs. But, James, no doubt, knows what he’s talking about. He had just written a history of the Louvre that was just published to acclaim, “The Louvre: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum” (Atlantic Monthly Press).

The Washington Post called him “brave” to take on the juggernaut of a 400,000 fund museum. The author, the Post reviewer added, “intends to persuade us to see the Louvre for itself, to appreciate the container as much as the content.”

The Boston Globe reviewer described my brother’s “daunting cultural scholarship,” which I believe is a compliment.

Despite the fact that he is my brother, I also recommend the book. The pleasure is twofold. It’s a fascinating story beautifully told, and it serves as an indirect visit to the museum for those of us who are hesitant to board a plane at the moment, let alone keep other tourists out of the way to get at the sight of the “Mona Lisa”.

It’s amazing how much we took for granted before the current health crisis. Sitting in a baseball park, cheek to cheek with 50,000 other fans. Heading to a favorite museum to refresh the soul with some great paintings. The Louvre has always managed to combine the emerald excitement of a professional baseball stadium with the breath and ambition of the most prestigious artistic institution in the world. The “Mona Lisa” is the Babe Ruth of paintings in a range of works by Raphael, Rubens and Rembrandt, a row of artistically talented murderers.

The book has a lot to say about the ‘Mona Lisa’, which is said to have been bought by Francis I, who had an eye for art – not all French kings – in 1518, when he enticed Leonardo da Vinci to visit France at the age of 64, putting a castle at his disposal. Leonardo died in France, where he is buried, three years later.

James argues that the Louvre wouldn’t quite be the Louvre without the “Mona Lisa”. But also that the “Mona Lisa” wouldn’t be the most famous painting in the world if it weren’t hanging on the walls of the Louvre. “Because the Louvre is at the center of Paris, and Paris, from the middle of the 18th century to the middle of the 20th century, was the undisputed center of Western art.”

An added delight of the book is that you can layer its descriptions of Paris – for example, when the Louvre was on the outskirts of the city and the Tuileries were not the magnificent gardens we know today but ancient tuileries (tuileries) – with your own experience of Paris. And if you’ve never been there, you’ll be much better prepared on your first visit.

It also happens that the publication of the book coincides with happy personal discoveries, those of the bulletins and the dissertations of my brother. They should encourage any parent of a “C” student.

“James is prone to venting his poetic spleen in the middle of science class,” his eighth-grade science teacher wrote.

“James’ quest for encyclopedic knowledge is admirable,” said his Grade 11 ancient and medieval history teacher, suggesting he make “a more sincere effort to cultivate humility.”

And his English teacher graded an assignment on two French poems a “B,” the shaded grade, one can’t help but feel, with the suspicion that my brother thought he knew more than the teacher.

“You seem to be trying to get your reader to the dictionary as often as possible,” observed the weary instructor.

I can attest that my brother managed to overcome this temptation in “Le Louvre”. I don’t think I’ve been led to the dictionary once, although like any book worth reading it pushes the reader’s intelligence to the next level.

Best of all, it doubles as high-end escapist history and literature for a summer where we can all benefit from the feeling of escapism, even if we shelter in place.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The New Yorker. He can be contacted at ralph@ralphgardner.com. Opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.