In his brave and scholarly new book, “The Louvre: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum,” critic James Gardner is bold in accepting and taking responsibility for what few mortals have the luck or stamina to do. Consider reading this book as the complete experience that you are temporarily denied today, or that you may never have had the energy to undertake.
Alone among the greatest museums of contemporary times, the Louvre was not built as a museum. The foundations (uncovered only recently) date from the 12th century fortress of that name, and upon them was erected over the centuries a sprawling palace which became, intermittently, the seat of the French monarchy.
Whatever its incarnation, the Louvre has always been intimately linked to the glorification of the King of France and, before and after the final disappearance of royalty in 1871, to the transcendent eminence of France. However, as a residence, it had to share the affections of the monarch with other more sumptuous residences (Amboise, Blois, Fontainebleau). Louis XIV spent the first decades of his long reign embellishing and investing the Louvre, then abandoned it entirely for the magnificent palace he had built at Versailles, where he moved the court. The Louvre lay dormant and decaying for more than a century afterwards.
The Louvre has grown in and out (westward) not abstractly, but to another magnificent stack, the Tuileries Palace. The museum’s 1610 Grand Gallery – in Gardner’s words, “pharaonic in ambition and almost superhuman in scale” – was designed as a grand passage to the Tuileries, Paris which is home to kings and Napoleons. In 1871, at the bloody end of Napoleon III’s reign, angry citizens of the capital burned down the Tuileries, making today a ‘phantom limb’, remembered by the eponymous gardens that stretch to the Place de Concord.
This bitter denouement of the Second Empire takes nothing away from the contribution of the Bonapartes to the Louvre. Napoleon I was a prodigious looter of art and antiquities from all the kingdoms he conquered, of course, but the credit for the great museum as we know it goes above all to his nephew Napoleon III, in power from 1848 to 1870 His passionate revitalization of the Louvre as a public showcase for the greatest art of Western civilization is singular in a reign best known for the sweeping modernization of the Parisian cityscape, which the Emperor delegated to Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann.
The contemporary visitor to the Louvre enters through the Carrousel, through the late 20th century glass pyramid by architect IM Pei. This once shocking addition and radical reorientation of the whole museum has created a new public connection in an area that was originally the reverse side of the Louvre. A casualty, for Gardner – who admires the Pei – is the facade that few visitors can see today: the one facing east. Often called the Colonnade, and in contrast to the “dull adequacy” of the facade facing the pyramid, this eastern facade is “as fine a piece of architecture, classical or otherwise, as will be found anywhere in the world”.
Here and everywhere, Gardner strives to persuade us to see the Louvre for itself, to appreciate the container as much as the content.
Most visitors to the Louvre today come not to admire its interiors but what those interiors contain. They are so eager to access the paintings on the second floor that they most often ignore the stairs that allow them to climb. They are so dazzled by the masterpieces on the walls that they miss the ceilings of these rooms, ceilings which, for the “period eye” of the Second Empire, were among the crowning glory of the time. “Every molecule of the Louvre’s Second Empire interiors feels charged with meaning and formal consequence,” writes Gardner, “and each piece is the product of hundreds of discrete acts of aesthetic judgment.”
As for the museum’s best-known artifact, the tiny Mona Lisa (La Joconde), Gardner recalls that Leonardo da Vinci’s early 16th-century portrait only became the icon it is today in the end of the 19th century, and wonders about the particularity of his celebrity. . He laments the difficulty of appreciating the painting from a distance and behind bulletproof tinted glass, but “the main obstacle to appreciating Mona Lisa, oddly enough, is our constant exposure to it. . . . Like a ticket of a dollar or an American flag, it is so familiar that we no longer see it.
Gardner is keen to explore the “multiple lives” of its subtitle and highlight all the ways the Louvre, even today, remains a work in progress and multifunctional. It had military uses early on and episodically until recent times. It was once home to (and the king subscribed to) many artists and craftsmen whose work would adorn the palace and museum. The French Ministry of Finance occupied the current Richelieu wing, along rue de Rivoli, until 1993.
President François Mitterrand, who served from 1981 to 1995, orchestrated the remake of the complex, which created one of the largest shopping malls, largest convention centers and largest parking lots in Paris underground. Gardner, God bless his heart, don’t forget even the most prosaic of them. The twilight acres of underground parking lot are “a breathtaking achievement, if not a thing of beauty,” he observes, and “can even be read as a devious parody of the glistening, sun-drenched splendor of the Upper Regions.”
Open the book and enjoy the visit.
The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum
Atlantic Monthly. 394 pages. $30