Louvre moves: scrums, dodgy loos and the ‘Photoshop of the 19th century’
The Trip: As our guide from Cameroon expertly shows me and a group of North Americans around the world’s biggest museum, the talk is of beautiful art and terrible toilets, while Mona Lisa divides opinion
The tour guide, Catherine Ekima. Photograph: Des Harris/The Picture Desk
The anatomy of Greek sculpture. Photograph: Des Harris/The Picture Desk
Catherine Winder and Craig Berkey of Vancouver, with their children Sophie and Dylan in the Apollo Gallery. Photograph: Des Harris/The Picture Desk
The “Skip the line” label is the main attraction for most of the 20 North Americans in my City Wonders guided tour of the Louvre, the world’s biggest and most-visited museum.
To avoid queuing for hours outside IM Pei’s glass pyramid entry, you purchase a “skip the line” ticket on the internet for €48. Our guide, Catherine Ekima, originally from Cameroon, has a degree in art history. For three hours, she speaks with humour and erudition about French history and the treasures of the Louvre.
We congregate under the pink-columned Carrousel arch that Napoleon built to commemorate his victories. Catherine holds a flag so we can find her in the crowd. We follow her like schoolchildren, listening through earpieces. About two-thirds of us are women, which may indicate something about which gender appreciates art more. There are as many Canadians as Americans. Ages range from pre-adolescence to about 60.
Catherine begins by breaking bad news to us: Mona Lisa is on loan to a museum in Germany, so we won’t see her. Brows furrow. Faces drop. “I’m joking,” says Catherine. “She’s here. Don’t worry. But don’t expect to be alone with her. We have 10 million visitors a year.”
Catherine keeps up a steady patter to her little flock. “Napoleon Bonaparte, you know him?” she asks when explaining the alignment of the Carrousel arch with the Arc de Triomphe, several kilometres to the west.
“Our pyramid, what do you think about it? Do you like it? Really?” Catherine continues. “We hated it in 1989, and we signed petitions to have it demolished. Then Dan Brown published The Da Vinci Code, and now we love the pyramid.”
She points to the Eiffel Tower and tells us that when it was built, 100 years before the pyramid, Parisians petitioned to have it demolished.
We take an underground passage to the Louvre shopping mall. “The Louvre is about art, but it is also about money. Here you have an Apple store, Starbucks and McDonald’s. This is crucial time: bathroom time,” says Catherine. “It’s now or never. I won’t stop during the tour.”
We have skipped the ticket queue, but we can’t skip the toilet queue, which cuts more than half an hour out of our museum time. The North Americans call the smell and hygiene of the Louvre’s latrines “gross”.
Yasmin, a gastroenterologist from Atlanta, is taking the tour with Angelique, who studied with her at Georgetown University School of Medicine. “Everybody talks about the Louvre,” says Yasmin. “It’s the only museum I’ll go to.”
Catherine Winder, a producer of animated films, and her husband, Craig Berkey, a cinema sound engineer, from Vancouver, want to expose their children to art. They are just off the plane, and the Louvre is their first stop, jet lag and all. “We don’t get enough art at home,” says Catherine. “Can we go shopping tomorrow?” pleads Sophie (11).
After counting her charges to make sure we have all returned safely from the toilets, Catherine takes us through the moat of the medieval Louvre to see its foundations, which were excavated in the 1980s. Because medieval stonecutters were paid by the piece, they marked their stones. One signed with a heart. “Maybe he was in love. That’s so romantic,” says Catherine.
Eight hundred years ago, the Louvre was a castle with turrets and drawbridges, placed outside the original Paris on the Île de la Cité to protect it. The Renaissance king Francis I razed it and began the present palace, which wasn’t completed until the 19th century.
The Louvre has more than 400,000 art works in storage, and 35,000 on show. It would take three months without sleeping to see everything, Catherine tells us. We speed past the Egyptian antiquities, where she points out a 4,000-year-old sphinx. This hybrid of lion and man attributed human brains and the strength of a lion to the pharaoh.
We have reached Greek and Roman antiquity. It turns out most Greek sculpture has been lost: thank goodness the Romans copied the Greeks so well or we wouldn’t know what their art looked like.
“I am going to show you some beautiful naked men,” says Catherine Ekima. Sure enough, there is the god Mars, his perfect proportions calculated five centuries before Christ by Polyclitus.
“These are the foundations of western art,” Catherine tells us, before her voice is drowned out by that of a Spanish guide using the same frequency. All 20 of us stop to change channels on our receivers.
Venus de Milo, named after the Greek island where she was found, stands at the end of a long corridor. “She is a beauty icon from a long time before Mona Lisa,” our guide says, and reminds us that Salvador Dalí painted Venus with drawers in her head and body. By the time we reach Winged Victory of Samothrace, the heat and traffic have reached full pitch. “This statue is light; it is almost flying,” says Catherine. “And yet it weighs two tons.” Catherine Winder and Sophie tell me they like Victory best, for the sculpture’s “sense of movement and power”.
Some don’t like it hot
We are using free maps of the Louvre to fan ourselves. Several men mop sweat from their faces with handkerchiefs or shirts. “I wish they’d charge a few more dollars and get some AC,” says Paula, a teacher from the University of Texas.
It is just as hot upstairs in the Apollo Gallery, dedicated to Louis XIV. “We got rid of our kings but we kept beautiful souvenirs of them,” says Catherine.
We rush past the Botticelli frescoes on the landing and in to the medieval room to admire Cimabue. He gets a bad rap for giving Mary, the Christ child and angels such severe faces. The background is gold, to show we are in heaven, and there’s no perspective.
Contrast that with the Botticelli Madonna, 100m and 200 years farther on. “You can see the love and tenderness,” says Catherine. “Christ is like a real baby.”
We have reached five masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, though not yet Mona Lisa. We approach the Leonardos but are driven back by a stampede of Japanese tourists.
“I feel like I’m in the street with cars passing,” says Catherine. We surge back towards the Leonardos. A woman from another tour walks on my right foot. It’s hard to be moved by art, however great, in such circumstances.
Mona Lisa scrum
“Now I will show you the most famous painting in the museum, Mona Lisa,” says Catherine, guiding us into the 840sq m purpose-built room where the lady smiles, ensconced behind bullet-proof glass. There are scores of other paintings on the three remaining walls, but hundreds of people are crowded around La Gioconda, to use her Italian name. A forest of raised hands take pictures with smartphones. “This is like the Beijing subway at rush hour,” says Seán, a psychologist from Edmonton, assuring me he has been there.
When the Mona Lisa was stolen by Vincenzo Perrugia, an Italian window cleaner at the Louvre, in 1911, people queued just to see the place where the painting had hung, Catherine tells us. She waits on the periphery while we plunge into the Mona Lisa scrum. “She’s so cool,” says Sophie What’s so cool about her? I ask. “She’s so famous,” says Sophie.
Her dad Craig is “more fascinated with the fascination than the Mona Lisa itself. There are so many great paintings – why that one? Celebrity defies explanation.”
Liz, a school teacher at a US base in Kaiserslautern, Germany, used to bring American schoolchildren to the Louvre. She photographs the masterpieces on her iPad to show them to her students. Liz is extremely happy with our guide. “I want all my tours with this woman. She pulls it all together. She is just fantastic. She likes what she does and it comes through in her voice and face.”
A little more Renaissance, then we fast-forward to the French 19th century. Catherine tells us how the neoclassical painter David added Napoleon’s mother to the painting of his coronation, although Letizia Bonaparte had in fact been absent: “The Photoshop of the 19th century.”
In front of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Craig recognises Gavroche, the child revolutionary from Les Misérables. It turns out Craig worked on the film. Catherine tells us that the boy with pistols in the painting inspired Victor Hugo to create the character.
It is 5.30pm. Catherine wants to show us the apartments of Emperor Napoleon III, the first emperor’s nephew, who was forced to abdicate in 1870. There’s an argument with the guards at the entry to the Pavillon Richelieu. They won’t let us enter because the museum is going to close in half an hour. Welcome to France.
It’s been an arduous but rewarding three hours. Dylan Winder-Berkey (16), provides the best summation of our trip: “It was awesome.”
WHISTLE-STOP TOUR: THE BEST AND WORST BITS
- Ate: You’re not allowed to take food or glass bottles into the Louvre, but a small, plastic bottle of mineral water is essential. There’s a cafe with superb views of the glass pyramid and the Tuileries upstairs in the Denon wing, just outside the 19th-century French painting section.
- Saw: A stunning tour of the history of western art, from the ancient Greeks through to the 19th century.
- Loved: Our guide, Catherine Ekima; Venus de Milo; Winged Victory of Samothrace; Cimabue’s Madonna Enthroned with Angels; Michelangelo’s Bound and Dying Slaves; David’s Coronation of Napoleon; and, up to a point, Mona Lisa.
- Hated: The crowds, lack of air-conditioning, dirty toilets and museum staff who shoo visitors out half an hour before official closing time.
- Would I do it again? Yes, but preferably on a weekday morning in winter.