The Mona Lisa stares out on an empty gallery
The Mona Lisa stares out on an empty gallery
rom her bulletproof case, Mona Lisa’s smile meets an unfamiliar sight these days: emptiness. The gallery in the Louvre Museum where throngs of visitors swarm to ogle her day after day is a void, deserted under France’s latest coronavirus confinement.
Around the corner, the Winged Victory of Samothrace floats quietly above a marble staircase, majestic in the absence of selfie-sticks and tour groups. In the basement, the Great Sphinx of Tanis looms in the dark like a granite ghost from behind bars.
Yet out of the rare and monumental stillness, sounds of life stir in the Louvre’s great halls.
The rat-a-tat of a jackhammer echoes from a ceiling above the Sphinx’s head. Rap music thumps from the Bronze Room under Cy Twombly’s ceiling in the Sully Wing, near where workers saw parquet for a giant new floor. In Louis XIV’s former apartments, restorers in surgical masks climb scaffolding to tamp gold leaf on to ornate mouldings.
The world’s most visited museum – nearly 10 million in 2019, mostly from overseas – is grappling with its longest closure since the Second World War, as pandemic restrictions keep its treasures under lock and key. But without crowds that can swell to as many as 40,000 people a day, museum officials are seizing a golden opportunity to finesse a grand refurbishment for when visitors return.
Sébastien Allard, general curator and director of the paintings department, says: “For some projects, the lockdown has allowed us to do in five days what would have previously taken five weeks.”
Louvre lovers have had to settle for virtual tours and the hashtags #LouvreChezVous and @MuseeLouvre. Millions of viewers got a spectacular fix this month from the Netflix hit series “Lupin,” in which Omar Sy, playing a gentleman thief, stars in action-filled scenes in the Louvre’s best-known galleries and under IM Pei’s glass pyramid.
But virtual reality can hardly replace the real thing. Louvre officials are hoping the government will reopen cultural institutions soon, although the date depends on the course the pandemic takes.
Meanwhile, a small army of about 250 artisans has been working since France’s latest lockdown began on October 30. Instead of waiting until Tuesdays – the only day of the week that the Louvre used to close – curators, restorers, conservators and other experts are pressing ahead five days a week to complete major renovations that had started before the pandemic and introduce beautifications that they hope to have finished within days.
Some of the work is relatively simple, like dusting the frames of nearly 4,500 paintings. Some is herculean, such as renovating the Egyptian antiquities hall and the Sully Wing. Nearly 40,000 explanatory plaques in English and French are being hung next to art works.
Even before the pandemic, the Louvre was taking a hard look at crowd management because mass tourism had meant many galleries were choked with tour groups. While travel restrictions have slashed the number of visitors, when it reopens the museum will limit entry to ticket holders with reservations to meet health protocols.
Other changes are planned – such as interactive experiences, including yoga sessions every half-hour on Wednesdays near Jacques-Louis David and Peter Paul Rubens masterpieces, and workshops in which actors play scenes from famous tableaux right in front of the canvas.
Marina-Pia Vitali, a deputy director of interpretation who oversees the projects, says: “It’s a ‘callout’ to say the museum is living and that people have the right to do these things here.”
When I walk the halls, I feel a thrill upon seeing the Venus de Milo rise from her pedestal – minus the glow of iPhones – and admire, at leisure, the drape of sheer fabric chiseled from unblemished marble.
In the cavernous Red Room – home to monumental French paintings including the The Coronation of Napoleon as emperor in Notre Dame, and The Raft of the Medusa, depicting grey-skinned souls just clinging to life – it feels uplifting not to be swept along by throngs.
In the Egyptian Wing, antiquities experts clean a two-ton granite stele that will dominate a new entrance. Workers are also refurbishing the Mastaba of Akhethotep, part of an Egyptian tomb that is among the Louvre’s most popular artefacts, in a dust-covered gallery scattered with saws and hammers.
Sophie Duberson, a restorer, takes a child’s toothbrush and delicately removes grime from the stele’s hieroglyphs, which provide instructions for reviving Sénousret, chief of the Egyptian treasury during the 12th Dynasty, in the afterworld.
Vincent Rondot, the Louvre’s director of Egyptian antiquities, inspects a temporary six-story support structure that has been built around the Mastaba, where a new angular entry wall is to be erected in time for the return of hoped-for crowds.
He says: “No one is celebrating the virus,” as sparks fly from a worker’s power cutter. “But we can welcome this situation because it lets us concentrate on the work.”
At the same time, social distancing restricts the number of workers allowed in closed spaces, which can slow progress. Artisans in Louis XIV’s rooms must remove masks to blow on gold leaf. Workers have to keep a distance, so fewer can do the job and the work can take more time.
The pandemic also has wreaked havoc with planning for special exhibits. The Louvre lends about 400 works a year to other museums and receives numerous loans for special shows.
“It’s really complicated because all museums in the world are in the process of changing their planning,” Allard says.
As governments order new restrictions to contain the virus, special shows are being pushed back. A loan reserved for exhibits at several museums may get caught in confinements, making it tricky to deliver the promised works, he says.
On a small metal dolly nearby, a self-portrait of a young Rembrandt, resplendent in a jaunty black beret, a thick gold necklace and a confident smile, rested in an ornate oval frame. The 1633 blockbuster had been lent to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and stranded for three months because of travel restrictions. A few days earlier, he had returned to his home at the Louvre by truck through the Channel Tunnel.
Blaise Ducos, chief curator of the Louvre’s Dutch and Flemish paintings collection, typically accompanies loans to and from their destination but could only watch the Rembrandt’s removal by video. He drove to Calais to get the masterpiece when it emerged from the Chunnel and was at last overseeing its rehanging in the Louvre’s Rembrandt room.
“We’re happy to have him back,” he says.
Nearby, workers climb a rolling scaffold to remove an enormous Anthony van Dyck painting Venus Asking Vulcan for the Armour of Aeneas. Destined for an exhibit in Madrid, the painting is whisked through the Dutch halls, past Johannes Vermeer’s The Astronomer, before getting stuck in front of a small doorway in the Rubens room.
The workers turn the painting on its side and slide it on pillows to the next gallery to be packaged and – pandemic restrictions permitting – sent on its way.
As a duo of Dutch paintings are hoisted to replace the Van Dyck, Allard says: “Covid has been a force majeure. At the moment we have so many question marks – it’s hard to know what the situation will be in two, three or four months.
“But despite Covid, we continue to work as always. We must be ready to welcome back the public.”