The best way to thoroughly visit the Louvre would be to move in for a month. Not only is it one of the largest museums in the world, with more than 35,000 works of art displayed over 60,000 sq. m (645,835 sq. ft.), but it’s packed with enough masterpieces to make the Mona Lisa weep. Rembrandt, Reubens, Botticelli, Ingres, and Michelangelo are all represented here; subjects range from the grandiose (Antoine-Jean Gros’s gigantic “Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa”) to the petite (Vermeer’s tiny, exquisite “Lacemaker”). You can gape at a diamond the size of a golf ball in the royal treasury, or marvel over exquisite bronze figurines in the vast Egyptian section.
Today, the building is divided into three wings, Sully, Denon, and Richelieu, each one with its own clearly marked entrance, found under I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid. Get your hands on a museum map (there’s an excellent interactive map on the museum’s website), choose your personal “must-sees,” and plan ahead. There’s no way to see it all, but mercifully, the museum is well organized and has been very reasonably arranged into color-coded sections. If you’re really in a rush or you just want to get an overall sense of the place, you can take the introductory guided tour in English (1 1/2 hr.; 11:15am, 2pm; Wed–Sun except the first Sunday of the month; 12€).
The museum’s three biggest stars are all located in the Denon wing. La Joconde ★★★ otherwise known as the “Mona Lisa,” now has an entire wall to herself, making it easier to contemplate her enigmatic smile. Another inscrutable female in this wing is the “Venus de Milo,” who was found on a Greek island in 1820. The “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” ★★ another magnificent Greek sculpture, stands at the top of a majestic flight of stairs, her powerful body pushing forward as if about to take flight. This headless deity originally overlooked the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on the island of Samothrace. At press time, the “Winged Victory” was undergoing a cleaning and was scheduled to be back on view in summer 2014.
Because a complete listing of the Louvre’s highlights would fill a book, below is a decidedly biased selection of my favorite areas:
13th- to 18th-Century Italian Painting A few standouts in the immense Italian collection include the delicate fresco by Botticelli called “Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman,” ★ Veronese’s enormous “Wedding Feast at Cana” ★ and of course, the “Mona Lisa.” The Divine Miss M is in a room packed with wonders, including several Titians and Tintorettos. Once you’ve digested this rich meal, stroll down the endless Grande Galerie, past more da Vincis (“Saint John the Baptist,” “The Virgin of the Rock”), as well as works by Raphael, Caravaggio, and Gentileschi.
Greek & Roman Sculpture While the “Venus de Milo” ★★★ and the “Winged Victory of Samothrace” are not to be missed, the Salle des Caryatides (the room itself is a work of art) boasts marble masterworks like “Artemis” hunting with her stag and the troubling “Sleeping Hermaphrodite,” an alluring female figure from behind—and something entirely different from the front.
The Galerie d’Apollon ★★ The gold-encrusted room is an excellent example of the excesses of 17th-century French royalty. Commissioned by Louis XIV, aka “The Sun King,” every inch of this gallery is covered with gilt stucco sculptures and flamboyant murals invoking the journey of the Roman sun god Apollo (ceiling paintings are by Charles Le Brun). The main draw here is the collection of crown jewels. Among necklaces bedecked with quarter-sized sapphires and tiaras dripping with diamonds and rubies is the jewel-studded crown of Louis XV and the pearl-and-diamond diadem of Empress Eugenie.
The Egyptians This is the largest collection outside of Cairo, thanks in large part to Jean-François Champollion, the 19th-century French scientist and scholar who first decoded Egyptian hieroglyphs. Sculptures, figurines, papyrus documents, steles, musical instruments, and of course, mummies, fill numerous rooms in the Sully Wing, including the colossal statue of Ramses II and the strangely moving Seated Scribe. He gazes intently out of intricately crafted inlaid eyes: A combination of copper, magnesite, and polished rock crystal create a startlingly lifelike stare.
Large-Format French Paintings Enormous floor-to-ceiling (and these are high ceilings!) paintings of monumental moments in history cover the walls in these three rooms. The “Coronation of Napoléon” ★★★ by Jacques-Louis David depicts the newly minted Emperor crowning Josephine, while the disconcerted pope and a host of notables look on. Farther on are several tumultuous canvases by Eugène Delacroix, including “Liberty Guiding the People” ★★★ which might just be the ultimate expression of French patriotism.
If you don’t want to wait in line for tickets to the Louvre, order tickets in advance online (in English) at either www.ticket.louvre.fr or www.fnactickets.com; you can print out your tickets, get them mailed to you, or, in the latter case, you can pick them up at any French branch of the Fnac bookstore chain. Note that the Louvre is open until 9:30pm on Wednesday and Friday—usually quiet times to visit. If you are of an improvisational bent, however, and prefer to pick up tickets at the entrance, here are a few ways to avoid the lines that often snake around the pyramid entryway: 1) Enter directly from the Palais Royal–Musée du Louvre Métro stop; 2) Take one of the two staircases on either side of the Arc du Carrousel in the Tuileries Gardens that lead directly down to the ticketing area; or 3) Enter at the Porte des Lions (in the Denon Wing).
Note: When visiting the museum, watch your wallets and purses—there has been an unfortunate increase in pickpockets; organized groups even use children to prey on unsuspecting art lovers.
- Margie Rynn