If you want a lousy time in Paris – be it travelling solo, enjoying a romantic weekend away as a couple, or holidaying with the whole family – I can thoroughly recommend the Louvre. OK, other, lousier experiences in the French capital are definitely available for the committed visitor prepared to seek them out. Try shopping on the Champs-Elysees, for instance. But take nothing away from the self-styled “world’s greatest museum”: as somewhere in the heart of the city to while away a few lousy hours, it can hold its head high.
I’m not just knocking it. The Louvre is wonderful, of course – a temple to high culture. But there’s something about these places, isn’t there? Their grandeur, the overwhelming abundance of what they offer, the nature of the access they grant us and their own conflicted relationship with art and commerce – all these things can converge like traffic on the M25 and make the actual experience of spending time in them… well, hard to love. It’s certainly true of a trip to the grande dame of the Rue de Rivoli.
Whether you’re queuing for half an hour in the theme-park maze of barrier tape on the paving stones by IM Pei’s glass pyramid, clearing security (hats off, coats off, bags through the scanner), or queuing again to pay your €15 entry fee amid the hundreds thronging the underground ticket hall; whether you’re attempting to master the 3D chess puzzle that is the museum’s five-level floorplan, struggling to locate your favourite Vermeer among the gallery’s 35,000 exhibits, or trying to glimpse the Mona Lisa through a thicket of selfie sticks; whether you’re shopping for a Mona Lisa phone case in the giant concession stand opportunistically erected in the room next to that picture, next to a priceless Ingres, or simply dragging your aching calves down palace halls as long as football pitches whose walls are stacked two or three pictures high while your brain explodes… well, you’re sure to emerge with at least a few memories of lousiness to take home and share with your friends.
You’re also quite likely to emerge in the middle of a shopping centre. But we’ll come to that.
The Louvre bestrides the world of galleries like a Colossus. It is the world’s largest gallery (72,735 square feet), the world’s most popular gallery (10.2 million visitors in 2018), the world’s most famous gallery (surely), and the gallery that houses what the world deems to be the hottest attraction in art, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. Clearly all of these accolades must be carefully weighed in any attempt to put one’s finger on what makes it such a uniquely terrible place to visit.
Certainly the grand old palace will seem no less supreme this year, the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, which it will mark in the autumn with a blockbuster exhibition featuring (in the words of its press release) “a unique group of artworks that only the Louvre could bring together”. The Louvre holds five of the 17 major works attributed to Leonardo. The National Gallery will further lend The Virgin of the Rocks. The Queen’s Royal Collection will send over some drawings. Italy, however, is apparently stonewalling on contributing three Leonardo paintings from the Uffizi in Florence on the ground that sending them away in this of all years would (as the Italian MP Lucia Borgonzoni said) “put Italy on the margins of a major cultural event”.
Yet, to Italy’s understandable irritation, France likes to lay claim to Leonardo, who, in 1516, at the age of 64, came to the country at the invitation of King Francis I and spent his last three years there. And the Louvre enjoys laying claim to the Mona Lisa, which Leonardo probably began in 1503, or possibly in 1513, but which he definitely brought with him to France. He may have worked on it in those final years and he certainly left the painting in his studio there, among others, when he died. As such, despite natural Italian resentments, the Mona Lisa belongs to a relatively rare category of exhibit in the Louvre: a non-French artefact that does not straightforwardly owe its place in the collection to aggravated cultural plunder, frequently by Napoleon.
In further defence of the Louvre’s fiercely proprietorial stance, bad things tend to happen to the Mona Lisa when it is out of their care. During a loan to Tokyo in 1974, a woman sprayed it with red paint in a protest against inadequate museum access for the disabled. At the Met in New York in 1963, it received an unwanted drenching from a faulty sprinkler system – not the best thing for the already slightly warped poplar board on which the picture is painted.
But then it hasn’t always been safe at home. In 1956 an acid attack scalded Lisa’s elbow, forcing repairs. As recently as 2009 a Russian woman flung a mug from the museum shop at it. And of course there was the time in 1911 when the painting was stolen off the Louvre’s own walls by one of the museum’s own employees, Vincenzo Perrugia, an Italian who believed the Mona Lisa should be repatriated. Perrugia kept the picture in his apartment for the best part of two years before (a schoolboy error this) trying to flog it to the Uffizi. He was jailed for six months but many in Italy lauded him as a patriot. Now the Louvre won’t loan the picture – not even to Italy on the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. In fact, especially not to them.
Italy will just have to go to Paris, then, where a pilgrimage to the Mona Lisa remains the central plank of any lousy trip to the Louvre that takes itself at all seriously. It has been alleged that 85 per cent of Louvre visitors come mainly, or even exclusively, to see La Gioconda and her mysterious smile, and you can join them by heading straight to Room 711, where you will find her smiling as mysteriously as anybody reasonably can while suspended in their own marble mausoleum behind a thunderous slab of bullet-proof glass. Reputedly insured for $820m, the painting is attended, like a boxer, by four bodyguards, two on each side, who warily monitor the clusters of 60 or 70 people who constantly jostle in front, taking pictures of the picture – or more accurately taking pictures of themselves in front of it.
It would be interesting to compile a list of the world’s most overlooked tourist destinations. The floor of the Sistine Chapel would definitely be on it: people’s attentions tend to be elsewhere. So would the field on the other side of the A303 from Stonehenge. But make room near the top for Veronese’s Les Noces de Cana, which hangs on the opposite wall to the Mona Lisa and can surely claim accordingly to have been walked past, turned away from and generally ignored by more people than any other painting in captivity.
A permanent wooden rail loops out in front of the Mona Lisa from the marble mount and tape barriers further hold viewers at a distance of approximately 25 feet. Which, of course, makes looking at the picture in any concerted way impossible. Walter Isaacson, in his recent biography of Leonardo, describes the Mona Lisa as “a distillation of his accumulated wisdom about the outward manifestations of our inner lives” and contends that all of Leonardo’s painstaking studies of anatomy and optics find their culmination in this one, modestly sized canvas. A contemporary description by Giorgio Vasari comments on “the lustre and watery sheen of the eyes” and maintains that “the mouth, with its opening, and with the ends united by the red of the lips to the flesh tints of the face, seemed in truth to be not colours but flesh. In the pit of the throat, if one gazed upon it most intensely, could be seen the beating of the pulse.”
Well, good luck with spotting any of that from this distance. Periodically, one of the guards will step forward to discourage those constructing selfies from leaning backwards against the barrier tape or, when the poles have been nudged forward by the pressing crowd, to set the tapes back and re-establish the required exclusion zone.
Still, it’s true what they say about this painting: thanks to an extraordinary optical illusion that has thus far proved beyond the capacity of science completely to explain, the crowds of Japanese tourists appear to follow you around the room when you look at it. It doesn’t matter what angle you choose to view it from – the Japanese tourists are somehow there, impeding your view.
There is more joy, and certainly more room, to be found in front of the Louvre’s other Leonardos – the Virgin with St Anne and the Infant, the second version of The Madonna of the Rocks. Ditto among the great French 19th-century works – the Gericaults and Delacroixs – where there are even seats, although your chances of getting an unobscured view of the major pictures from them on an ordinary afternoon is remote. But even in pursuit of these pleasures, the sheer scope of the place seems against you. The profusion of the exhibits and the vastness of the space seem to inhabit the mind until inattention and exhaustion become the only options. Of course, to some extent this is the standard big museum experience. One recalls Milly Theale in Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, who goes to the National Gallery in search of “real improvement”, only to realise, once inside, that “something within her was after all too weak for the Turners and Titians. They joined hands about her in a circle too vast.” The Louvre, in all its vast interlocking acres, seems to circle you and exhaust you like no other.
At one point, I conceived a desire to see Ingres’ The Bather, in Room 940. From where I was in Room 727 this would involve a long and complex journey from one side of the museum to the other, diverting at one point through the entire history of Ancient Egypt, as told in room after room of glass cases. Eventually I emerged to climb a peculiar enclosed staircase and set off again, pushing through swing door after swing door. A long forced march through the sunlit uplands of French neo-classicism and a solitary yomp through several fields of extremely dull Corots was broken only by the momentary bright spot of finding a medium-sized canvas by Eustache Le Suer (1617-1655) in which Saint Bruno, borne aloft into a bright blue sky by angels, was a dead ringer for Phil Collins. I located the Ingres picture eventually, hanging, for no clear reason, under a row of tapestries of saints. It looked great, but the journey had cost me.
Pausing after these efforts to fortify myself in the basement refectory with an oddly dry ham salad bagel and a small cardboard cup of coffee (€11.50), I found myself pondering a few questions. Why is Gericault’s awe-inspiring The Raft of the Medusa on one side of the building, and his oil sketch for that picture, which it might be informative to have to hand, two floors, several hundred rooms and a number of civilisations away on the other? What explains this second burst of works by Delacroix, hung so distantly from the principal ones? And is it philistine to wonder if culture is better administered in smaller doses than this? I can report from personal experience that this is a gallery where, exhaustedly seeking the exit after four hours, you finally happen upon your first Direction of Visit sign – and find the arrow pointing back in the direction you just came from.
Still, I can also report that I ploughed on to the exit, descending through the building to the level of its medieval foundations, where I picked my way gingerly through flocks of schoolchildren crayoning worksheets on the floor, and then heading down a corridor flanked with the museum’s own retail outlets and out. But it wasn’t over. Having sucked you underground by escalator, the Louvre does not burp you out into the elegant spaces of the Jardin des Tuileries for a few calm moments of reflection. It parks you directly in front of a Tommy Hilfiger store, a perfume shop the size of a small aircraft hangar, and a Bose outlet.
This is the Carrousel du Louvre, 10,200 square meters of deluxe retail opportunity standing incongruously between the exiting Louvre viewer and fresh air. Think Westfield at Stratford, but with more golden-hued lighting and a stronger use of marble. How quaint to think that, in London, freshly announced plans to reorient the National Portrait Gallery and give it a new main entrance on the northern side have had to override the express wishes of the institution’s long-dead benefactor that it should always face away from Soho’s impure temptations. Meanwhile in Paris the Louvre squats like the body of an octopus above a tentacular subterranean network of mall aisles, such that you can be standing contemplatively in front of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People one minute and browsing high-end handbags the next.
Yes, one understands that acquisitiveness and naked commercialism have always been part of the broader gallery deal. In Napoleon’s time, the latest foraged and captured artefacts would be paraded gloatingly through the Paris streets on the way to their new permanent home. (Apparently, Napoleon snaffled the Mona Lisa for his bedroom wall for a while.) Even so, it can still feel jarring – not to say a little disappointing – that the world’s greatest museum has let itself become wedded so firmly to the shop-and-fly aesthetic of Heathrow’s Terminal 5.
But hey: you’re in Paris and you want to see the Mona Lisa. Where else are you going to go?