Paris Travelog #5 – The Louvre

This is the next serving of our Paris Travelog series. The previous post was a photo-essay by Sukumar. You can check it out here.

A trip to Paris is incomplete without a visit to the fantastic Louvre, which has been a museum since 1793. It is the largest museum in the world. The sprawling complex, spread over 645,000 square feet has around 40,000 exhibits in its permanent collection. Even if one spends 2 or 3 minutes per exhibit, it will take 5 or 6 months to see the museum in full!

The much-talked about Glass Pyramid of the Louvre, “immortalized” by Dan Brown in his book The Da Vinci Code is in the entrance. Conceptualized & built by the American architect I.M.Pei in 1989, the modern composition in metal & Saint Gobain glass has nothing in common with the building behind it. The French were prostrated with grief, they were inconsolable. Then they got used to the pyramid & started bragging about it.

The best way to see Louvre is to take the 2 hour long guided tour, which covers the major attractions, then spending the rest of the day  – or 2 – in the galleries of your choice.

The museum is divided into 3 wings – Denon, Sully & Richelieu. Each wing has several collections, spread out over many Salles (rooms). Salle 7 in the Denon wing has the most famous painting in the world – Mona Lisa or La Giaconda. Protected by a glass pane, the small – and some say highly over-rated – painting by Leonardo da Vinci has no dearth of admirers. But the undisputed star of Salle 7 is the riveting Wedding Feast at Cana by Italian Master Paolo Veronese. The huge, colorful painting has a Biblical theme, like most Renaissance art: It depicts a miracle performed by Jesus Christ at Galilee. It makes the almost mono-chromatic Mona Lisa on the opposing wall look drab & dreary by comparison, da Vinci’s Sfumoto technique notwithstanding.

In my opinion, the best painting by da Vinci is St John the Baptist. Unfortunately, it was loaned to another museum & we couldn’t see it. Now, St John the Baptist was a prophet who foretold the birth of Christ. Look at the painting, the beautiful androgynous face & the enigmatic smile. Prophets have no business looking so good. The step-daughter of King Herod – Salome – fell head over heels in love with St John the Baptist. Sadly, the prophet didn’t find the princess hot enough 😉 Some people can’t take a “No” for an answer. So, Salome had the holy man – beheaded.

Our guide clearly didn’t think much of da Vinci. She showed us a remarkable portrait done by Raphael Santi: Count Baldassore Catiglione. “Look at the wonderful painting!” she ordered. “From his elegant clothes, you can make out that he’s wealthy. From his demeanor, his kind eyes & the expression on his face, you can guess that he was a friendly, approachable man!” she said. “This is how a portrait is supposed to be – it should convey the essence of the person being painted. What does Mona Lisa convey?” she spat out.  “Which portrait do you prefer – Count Castiglione or Mona Lisa?” she asked me. “Well, its difficult to choose between them” I hazarded. Wrong answer. Our guide snorted.

The most depressing painting in the Denon Wing is Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa in Salle 77. Done mostly in sorrowful grays, browns and black, it depicts a group of starving ship-wrecked sailors adrift on a sorry-looking raft. Some are dead. The rest look miserable. Some have lost all hope & some are almost mad with grief. If this grim painting doesn’t make you cry, I don’t know what will.

Probably one of the most controversial paintings in the Louvre is Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin. The painting has darkened with age & depicts the grief-stricken apostles & Mary Magdalene upon the death of Mother Mary. The painting, completed in 1606 AD, caused a stir since it depicted the death of the Virgin – a subject that shocked people. Plus, Caravaggio allegedly used a prostitute as a model. People back then were easily shocked – just like people now. Guess some things never change 😉

Apart from Mona Lisa, the most prized possessions of the Louvre are Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. The latter dates back to the 3rd Century BC. We admired the artist’s skillful rendering of the statue’s flowing drapes. But, Venus? She & Mona Lisa suffered from the same problem: An even better work of art – a colossal Pallas Athena, in this case – was positioned on the opposing wall. We liked the majestic Athena, the warrior goddess, better than the limb-less Venus. Why, she couldn’t even gather her slippery robes! Perhaps we have a rather common, unartistic soul. Hey, we like what we like.

If you have some time, scoot over to the Near Eastern galleries in the Richelieu wing, if only to see 2 exhibits. Salle 4 has a recreation of an ancient Assyrian temple in Khorsabad, from the time of Sargon II. You can see many people mooning over 2 huge – really huge – sculptures of the Lamassu, mythical winged beasts with a human head & a beatific smile. But the author, obsessed with law, found another exhibit historically more significant: The Codex of Hammurabi. I had goose-bumps when I saw it 😀

Created in the 18th Century BC in Babylon, this is one of the earliest comprehensive compendium of laws created in the world. Written in the Akkadian language in the Cueniform script, the basalt stele covers Commercial, Agricultural, Family & Administrative laws. There are laws governing divorce, inheritance, adoption, incest, slavery etc. The letter of the law. What an integral part it plays in attempting to keep humans human! I almost genuflected before the stele.

The Louvre has something for everyone, whether that someone loves art or not. Our suggestion is to head towards the “Northern School” galleries in the Richelieu wing, which houses paintings by Dutch & Flemish Masters. The subject of the paintings are pastoral scenes, still life, peasants & landscapes – AKA, the life & times of the little people. Far from being coarse, common & unworthy, these paintings are more pleasing – a whole lot more pleasing – than the ones about Kings, Queens, Gods & mythology. If you snort when you hear the word “Art” & dismiss it as high-brow – you should stop by these galleries. The paintings were so soul-satisfying, calming & refreshing.

The most famous painting in this gallery is Jan Vermeer’s Lace-maker. Here are a few more that we couldn’t get enough of: Hobbema’s Water Mill, Van Mieris’s Soap Bubbles, Coorte’s 6 Shells on a Stone Shelf, Snyders’s Group of Birds Perched on Branches, Heda’s Still Life with Silver Goblet & Cuyp’s  Landscape Near Rhenen. Their beauty is their sheer simplicity & universal appeal.

We did find a jarring note in the Louvre. Every single artifact was labeled in French & only in French. Some of the Salles had A-4 sheet-sized cards, listing main attractions in English, but these were hard to come by. Yes – in France, people speak French. But, the world speaks English. It would make the lives of tourists a lot easier if the exhibits are also labeled in English. We found it very difficult to check out the smaller exhibits in the Near Eastern galleries, for e.g. The Louvre does have the mother of all Multimedia Guides, but it covers only their prized possessions – which is < 5% of the permanent collection.

Sukumar will continue this series, with a photo-essay of the Louvre.


  1. Quote
    Padma Ashtekar said January 18, 2010, 12:34 pm:

    Good post priya!I ve never steeped out of Indian Soil even once..But ur description of even minute details is so good that it gives me a feeling as if i am standing before the painting and ve visited paris and the Louvre number of times;-))).

  2. Quote

    Padma – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Saw your post on your family’s trip to Karde. Looks like you had solid fun (as usual) with your family. And nice pics. But a pic of the punctured tire was a bit much 😉

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    Awesome post. Never understood why Monalisa has that soft effect. I understood it is because of Sfumoto. One more word in my limited art vocab.
    And “The Codex of Hammurabi” – looks like an inspiration to our bollywood revenge dramas 😉

    Eager to see the photos by Sukumar.

  4. Quote

    Vamsi – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Interestingly enough, only the galleries with the Italian masters & Neoclassical paintings were crowded. The Near Eastern galleries were mostly empty, except around the Lamassu. We had the Codex of Hammurabi all for ourselves.

  5. Quote

    Thanks Priya, Very useful information. Bookmarked for later use.

  6. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said January 20, 2010, 9:40 am:

    Excellent post Priya. When i read Da Vinci Code, i never imagined the glass pyramids (both the one outside and the inverted one inside) to be this spectacular. I can’t believe the French didn’t like it at first. the pyramids add anther element of charm/mystery to the Louvre. I think the glass pyramid must be the inspiration for the Apple Manhattan Store in the shape of glass cube in 5th ave. Wonder if anyone else made that connection?

    BTW, for me the near eastern antiquities section made the day. I wanted to see the cylinder seals from Sumer and there were plenty f them here. They are so tiny much similar to the tiny IVC seals. Of curse, seeing the Hammurabi’s code from our grade school history book gave me the goosebumps.

    Northern School was spectacular. So many excellent paintings over there.

    Super post.

  7. Quote

    Subba – Thanks for your comment. Do let us know if you plan to visit Paris, we can give you some (unsolicited!) suggestions 🙂

  8. Quote

    Sukumar – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    The Apple Manhattan store – Interesting observation. A few others think so too – I’m trying to find out if the same architectural firm created both – after all, I.M.Pei is American.

    Yes, the cylinder seals were interesting. Wish they were labeled in English. Now, we are all looking forward to your photo essay of the Louvre.

  9. Quote

    Great post, Priya! Cheers.

  10. Quote

    Wow! What a recounting Priya! Wish I can recount even 1% of the wonders I have noticed. 🙁 I am usually so lost in them that I don’t bother to take notes & without notes am totally utterly lost! 🙁 And the wonders you were subjected to were far greater than mine. I genuflect before thee! 😀

  11. Quote

    Zishaan – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Checked out your blog – you seem to be bitten by the travel bug too. Will read your blog posts on South Africa over the next few days 😉

  12. Quote

    Prem – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    >>I am usually so lost in them that I don’t bother to take notes<< That means, you'll be a better narrator than I. You probably enjoy the sights more than I do. >>And the wonders you were subjected to were far greater than mine<< I don't know about that, places we are yet to see always appear more wondrous, I guess 🙂

  13. Quote

    The reason I.M.Pei created an Egyptian Pyramid in Glass for the Entry Atrium and submerged space for the Louvre is because Louvre came into existence because of Napoleon’s penchant for conquering Egypt. The enormous amount of Egyptian loot needed a home and hence Louvre was born as a consequence of Napoleon’s collections needing a home.

    There is also a political association. The Romans harked back to the Classicism of Roman hereditary and pitched themselves as ancient people. They championed that all architecture was pure as white marble. The Germans took hold of Greek history and painted the columns and buildings in bright colors, deconstructing the false readings of classicism. The English associated with their crusades, therefore Biblical places. The French desperately needed to prove that they are the descendants of something even older. Enter Pharaohs.

    Now you know why, Pyramid.

  14. Quote

    Zen – Thanks for your comment & interesting ideas.

    The Louvre has been around for a long time, since the 12th century. Successive kings added more wings. And yes, Napoleon “brought” back a lot of stuff from Egypt – including a giant Obelisk, which I had written about in Part-3.

    In I.M.Pei’s conversations, he talks about the symmetry of the pyramid & how it provides a center-point to a building that otherwise has no center. In his view, a cylinder or a cone is not symmetrical enough. Another aspect he wanted to introduce was transparency, a modern concept. When Mitterand chose the pyramid, the French hated the structure – they didn’t want it at all. They thought it ruined the facade of the Louvre.

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    Interesting post! :).. Bookmarked..

  16. Quote

    Kripa – Thanks for your comment.

  17. Quote

    Priya’s post are always a feast for the reader…
    Hope you had great time and vacation..And Louvre..Now ,that made me to completely get lost in Dan Brown’s book 🙂
    write often Priya 🙂 expecting a book from you as well 🙂

  18. Quote

    Annapoorani – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Yes, the vacation was great. Unfortunately, it ended & I’m back where I started – at this thing called “wurk”.

    Books, yes. I don’t know if I have it in me to write a book. In the off-chance event that I have the ability: I feel writing isn’t a serious vocation that contributes to society, in ways that running a company could. I’ll feel terribly guilty writing, when there’s work to do. I see an idea for a post, here 😉

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