The Louvre Museum is the world’s biggest and most popular art gallery; itself an historic site, a medieval and baroque castle, a ground-breaking piece of modern architecture and a collection of more art and artefacts than you’ll be able to appreciate in a lifetime. And you’re only in Paris for a handful of days! Where do you even begin?
There are a handful of objets that even the most art blind tourists will have heard of and will want to check off the list on their visit. Lets count them off:
- Mona Lisa
- Venus de Milo
- The Winged Victory of Samothrace
…and that’s about it! You’ve given yourself a whole day for the Louvre Museum, and you’ve covered the essential must see artworks in about 30 minutes (and that includes the time it takes to walk between them and take the necessary selfies).
But these are hardly the only artworks worth seeing.
1. Pavillon de l’Horloge
Starting in the basement is always a win, and down here, rather than art, you find the literal foundations of the complex; these are the immense, rampart walls of the medieval castle which was home to generations of the Bourbon rulers of the area that eventually coalesced into modern day France. These monumental stones are literally the bedrock on which the French state and culture are built.
2. Great Sphinx of Tanis
On your way up from the bowels of the building you’ll come across the Great Sphinx and much of the incredible collection of Egyptian artefacts housed in the Louvre Museum. Much of this collection was captured by Napoleon during his North African campaign and constitute the beginning of European understanding of the amazing history of the Egyptian Dynasties.
It’s also important to remember that Tanis is the site where the great archaeologist, Professor Henry Jones, uncovered the Arc of the Covenant!
3. Hammurabi’s Code
Another phenomenal artefact of human civilization is a fairly boring looking, black pillar. I love that, if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you could just about stub your toe on this nub, curse quietly, and move on, without knowing just how amazing this little black nub is!
When you look more closely, you see that it’s covered in scratches. These scratches are sanskrit – the world’s oldest written alphabet – a technological breakthrough that enabled the organisation of the world’s first, great empire: the Persian Empire. And this pillar is a powerful reminder of that: one of the earliest and most complete attempts to define a legal code and bring order to world that had only known the power of strength.
This unassuming, little black nub, is the beginning of our modern world.
4. The Lamassus
That Muse sums up my feelings on the Lamassus perfectly. These guys are such characters! Such vibrant, living things of stone – noble and impassive, standing at attention when viewed from the front, pacing and preparing for flight when viewed from the side.
Visiting my local Lamassus here in London at the British Museum is always breath catching; so it’s a special pleasure to visit their cousins here in France.
In an era when ancient Persian and Mesopotamian culture is at such great risk it’s important to be reminded of just how fantastically rich, human and real these civilisations were.
5. The Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave
Many people miss this pair of sculptures by Michelangelo, standing as they do in a darker gallery, swarmed by so many other beautiful little objects, they look – and are – unfinished.
Like so many of Michelangelo’s works – especially The “Prisoners” and the monumental works for the Medici Chapel – there’s tantalising beauty and mystery in the “what might have been” of these two figures, undertaken for the tomb of Michelangelo’s great patron and antagonist Pope Julius II before those plans were abandoned.
Are they representative of Michelangelo’s relationship to the pope? Is it Michelangelo’s idealised youth and raging, mature creativity, chained in eternity to the pope’s legacy? Or are they more figurative? I love the immediacy of Michelangelo’s unfinished works, as if the master himself has only just laid down his chisel and stepped away, to return shortly and continue. The play between perfectly polished marble that could be flesh and the rough rock that reminds you of just how incredible this (and all!) artist’s skill was.
6. Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss
Speaking of which, you’ll find this great work of awesome skill and observation by a nearby window. At the right time of day, the sunlight illuminates Cupid’s translucent wings, bringing the stone itself to life.
7. Sleeping Hermaphroditus
And still in the same room, you’ll find this ancient work of startling observation.
There are ancient and modern copies of this work scattered across the world – in the Hermitage as well as the Uffizi and Vatican Museums and the Villa Borghese (whence this original was purchased) – and this too was essentially a garden ornament in the ancient Roman Gardens of Sallust, copied from a lost, bronze Greek original. What is original here is the mattress and pillow, added in 1620 by Bernini, which is itself so convincing as to bring this whole 2000 year old piece to life.
8. Liberty Leading the People
The Louvre Museum isn’t just about incredible sculpture through the ages. This iconic painting of French Revolutionary zeal has been an inspiration and focus for the idea of French “liberty” for almost 200 years.
Eugène Delacroix‘s epic work was initially bought by the French government to be hung in full view the new King Louis-Philippe as a reminder of the power of the people that had birthed the preceding 40 years of upheaval; this painting is full of energy, anger, purpose and drive. Marianne – the spirit of France, Lady Liberty herself – turns back to us all in the fog and confusion of the now and commands us fearlessly to keep pushing forward.
9. The Raft of the Medusa
I find this painting overwhelming, and it’s meant to be. Painted at greater than life-size, you’re meant to feel small in the face of terrifying natural power.
The emotion of the piece – painted by the then 27 year-old Théodore Géricault – captured and kicked-off what would become the artistic movement of French Romanticism.
10. La Dentellière by Jan Vermeer
Rembrandt declared this piece by his fellow Dutch painter to be the greatest painting in world history. A big call, but The Lacemaker is a gorgeous study of a woman, bent over her work, realised in tremendous detail.
11. Napoleon III Apartments
The apartments of Napoleon III mark the last time anyone lived in the Louvre Museum (other than sleeping security guards and tired researches). These are rococo masterpieces in their own right, though often overlooked by visitors focussed on the art.
If you’ve made it out to Versaille then these rooms are that much more remarkable. There you will have seen practically understated luxury and design compared to these jewel-box rooms which overpower you with ornaments atop ornaments. The difference between the opulence at the end of the French Monarchy and that of the French Empire just a few generations later is eye-opening.