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Memories of a Paris Vacation: Getting Lost in the Louvre

By Marta Yamamoto, Special to the Planet
Friday July 28, 2006

I was in Paris for just a few days. According to carefully devised calculations I had two hours to tour the Louvre. After two hours I was still there. I tried following “sortie” signs toward the exit but they kept directing me through galleries showcasing illuminating artifacts. Once inside I’d get sucked back into the viewing circuit.  

Getting lost in the Musee du Louvre must be part of some diabolical plot; it’s the only way to view a small portion of the 35,000 works that make up its collection. Like Tom Hanks in The Terminal, not being allowed to leave would go a long way toward getting a grasp on the unmatched artistic history present within these walls. 

Words like maze and labyrinth have been used to describe the configuration of the largest museum in the western world. Seven major departments, from the Art of Islam and the Orient to European Painting and Sculpture, are housed in a U-shaped Palace composed of three wings, Denon, Sully and Richelieu, each made up of four levels, from lower ground to second floor. Some departments, such as Painting and Sculpture, are further divided into collections.  

Departments are color-coded and the works of art are exhibited in numbered rooms; both clearly represented on the excellent Museum Plan available in an amazing variety of languages. Directional signs are posted at intersections. 

Navigation options are as plentiful as the Paris Metro Lines. Travel Guidebooks offer specific strategies for “conquering the Louvre”, directing you to a selected list of Star Attractions. Others recommend following a particular period, department or collection in depth. You can also don headsets or accompany a Museum guide on Introductory Tours.  

This richness of statistics should have made my tour a snap. In truth, it was only post-Louvre that I became such an expert. My perusal of a Paris Guidebook in no way prepared me for my first encounter with the Louvre amidst a summer in Paris. Halfway through my visit I remembered a dream I have periodically. I’m on my way to a college final but can’t find the room or remember ever attending class. I should have been better prepared. 

Leoh Ming Pei’s glass and steel girder Pyramid is the entrance of choice for most visitors. Composed of 793 diamond and triangle-shaped panes that reflect the sky, this arresting 71-foot edifice is cleaned weekly by its own tracked robot.  

To avoid crowds I entered Napoleon Hall underground, through the Carrousel Mall off Rue de Rivoli. My first impression was of lemmings, soaring down escalators and mingling below the Pyramid. I’d arrived early, as advised, but everyone else had read the same book. 

Interested in Egyptian Antiquities I choose the Denon access, following signs to Room A. From this moment I was mesmerized, lost to the wonders of the Louvre, my plan forgotten. In dimly lit cavern-like galleries I wandered, gazing at stone friezes and portraits of funerary art, the coffin of Chenptah and a page from Thebes, plaster masks and tomb accouterments. 

One set of stairs from Lower-Ground to Ground Floor moved time from the 6th century BC Roman Egypt to 16th century Italian sculptures. In the Michelangelo Gallery my eyes kept darting from the rich bronze Mercure Volant and Hercule vainque l’Hydre to the room’s architectural details. Walls, ceiling, floors, windows, lights—each works of art in themselves. 

By now I’d joined the lemmings, heading up to view the Hellenic masterpiece, The Victory of Samothrace, occupying an entire landing. Her marble wings outstretched and clothing flattened, the force of the wind was almost tangible. Here I first encountered Digital Mania, which followed me throughout the morning. Every important work, alone or with travel partner alongside, required documentation.  

The Italian paintings of Botticelli, Fillippino and Fra Diamante lead me through galleries whose gold and green ceiling bore the painters’ names. The Grand Gallery was somber beneath a high glass-domed ceiling, paintings alternating with sculpture-filled niches. In Room 6, behind bulletproof glass and a solid phalanx of gazers, hung the Mona Lisa, so small in comparison to a huge Caliari across the room. Her enigmatic smile seemed to echo my confusion regarding her fame; why was she prized so highly above all the other paintings within these rooms. 

Among mottled brick-colored walls and black trim, French paintings held court. Huge powerful canvasses told of Napoleon’s coronation, Medusa’s raft and the death of Sardanapalus. Ample seats held many experiencing museum fatigue. Every 10 minutes I’d hunt one down, pull out my map and ask, “Where am I” and “Where am I going?” While resting I listened in to a guide, “Every painting tells a story and has a complex history; that of the painter, the times and the reason behind the painting.” 

From Venus de Milo, carved in 100 BC and viewed in the round, I entered the magnificent Apollo Gallery, a model for Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors. The amount of gold present rivaling the U.S. Mint. Paintings of 15th century kings, artists and architects who worked on the Louvre hung below a gilded ceiling. Center stage went to cases holding a king’s ransom of jewelry in gold encrusted with precious gems, including a 140-carat diamond and the crown of Louis XV. 

Foot-sore and mind saturated I tried to leave. Heading toward the exit I was waylaid by an Etruscan banquet, a terracotta sarcophagus of a married couple with expressive faces, then found myself again in ancient Egypt. In a small room-size tomb, the mastaba, stonewalls were covered with bas-reliefs depicting scenes from everyday life, like a set of instructions to be followed in the after-life. Sphinxes, the four monkeys from Luxor and sarcophagi in stone and wood—the wealth of artifacts beyond belief. 

After circuiting through an archaeological exhibit on medieval Louvre’s first lives as a fortress and palace, I finally returned to Reception Hall, now home to one-tenth of the world population, and ascended by escalator into the fresh air. Above ground Pei’s Pyramid was center stage, surrounded by what I then realized was the extent of the Louvre, the magnificent three-wing Palace I hadn’t visualized from underground.  

On a sole unoccupied bench I took in the grandeur of the architecture and the sheer volume of space. Referring to my museum plan I realized that my three-hour adventure had taken me mainly through just one wing and only three levels. Surprisingly I wasn’t a bit disappointed with what I’d seen or what I’d missed. I’d given myself up to the Louvre, each artwork and artifact a tile in the giant mosaic of my experience. Now at home, I’m researching how to avoid leaving at closing time. With enough planning I could spend several days there. Well trained and prepared with comfortable shoes and energy-providing fortifications I could make it through the remaining galleries. Maybe. 



Photograph by Marta Yamamoto  

A Renaissance stone palace, fountained pools and Leoh Ming Pei’s modern glass and steel pyramid create a striking statement outside the Louvre.