So enormous is the Louvre, the world’s most visited museum that it would take three months to view every piece of art contained in it, and that’s if you spent just 30 seconds looking at each artwork all day, every day without a break. There are more than 7,500 paintings, the displays cover nearly 15 acres, and are divided across eight quite separate departments…
Obviously the thing to do is give everything in the Louvre only ten seconds, that way you can get round in a month. But, tempting as that prospect may seem, reality has to come into the equation, and that invites focus, selectivity and repeat visits to Paris. Well, no-one ever said that being a tourist was easy.
This remarkable, world-renowned museum wasn’t always a museum, however. Built in 1190 as a fortress, it became a royal palace in the 16th century, and during Napoleon’s reign was renamed Musée Napoleon. He significantly expanded the collection, but his acquisition techniques were exposed as somewhat heavy handed when, following his defeat, no fewer than 5,000 items were returned to their original owners. On which note, it is also interesting to record that during World War II, the Nazis used the museum as a storeroom for stolen art.
Today, there are over 380,000 items in the Louvre collection; just not all are on display. What is on show attracts more than 15,000 visitors per day, 70% of whom are foreign tourists.
It was in August, 1793, that the Musée du Louvre, first opened its doors to the public. For more than 600 years, the Louvre had been a symbol of the wealth, power and decadence of the French monarchy, and the confiscation and reconstituting of what had been a royal palace into a national museum was seen as a grand cultural gesture embodying the egalitarian values of the recent French Revolution.
Among its most famous works, of course, is the Mona Lisa, a half-length portrait of a woman by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci, acclaimed as “…the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world”.
The painting, in oil on a white Lombardy poplar panel, is thought to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, and is believed to have been painted between 1503 and 1506. Not everyone is so sure, and the identity of the woman has been disputed for centuries, some even suggesting that it was a self-portrait and an allusion to the artist’s presumed homosexuality.
The painting was acquired by King Francis I of France, Da Vinci’s patron in France, and is now the property of the French Republic. Its value is unimaginable, so much so that the insurance premiums were once so high it was cheaper to improve the security system, placing it behind glass to protect her enigmatic smile from thieves, bullets, knives, spray paint, lipstick and society’s rich bag of assorted nutters. In 1911 it was stolen by an Italian criminal who claimed his motive was the painting’s repatriation to da Vinci’s native lands—for two years, visitors to the Louvre were greeted by a vacant spot on the wall where the painting had once been.
In 2015, a painting by Picasso – Women of Algiers – sold for a record $160 million, but some valuations would put the Mona Lisa as high as $760 million, making it the most valued painting in the world. Ironically, its size doesn’t match its price tag. At a mere 53cm by 77cm, it is not much larger than an A2 sheet of paper, but weighing in – if that valuation is to be believed – at an incredible $186,229 per square centimetre. Napoleon was so impressed by the painting that he took it and hung it in his private bedroom.
The most distinctive of the Louvre’s hallmarks, however, is not inside the museum, but outside: the glass pyramid, commission by François Mitterand, built in 1989 and standing 21 metres high. It has been claimed that the glass panes in the Louvre Pyramid number exactly 666, “the number of the beast”, often associated with Satan, although simple mathematics disproves that – you don’t have to go and count them all. Beneath it, however, if Dan Brown is to be believed, lie the remains of Mary Magdalene. Pure fiction, of course. But is that also true of the ghost, a mummy called Belphegor, who haunts the museum, or the man dressed in red who is said to haunt the Tuileries gardens nearby?
What is certainly true, is that the Louvre is seamed with culture, history and heritage, a place of enlightenment and inspiration. It was ever thus, and always will be.
Open: Monday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday: from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Wednesday, Friday: from 9 am to 9:45 pm.; Closed on Tuesdays
Free entrance first Sunday of the month from October to March.
Buy your tickets in advance to ensure entry – you can buy them online at the official Louvre website: www.louvre.fr/en
 Barbara Maranzani, ‘Six things you may not know about the Louvre’, History in the headlines, 9 August 2013.
 John Lichfield, ‘The moving of the Mona Lisa’, The Independent, 2 April 2005.
 Maranzani, Op. Cit.
See the new wing of the Louvre Lens, northern France
Museums on the first Sunday of the month are free to enter (except for some in summer months)
by Dr Terry Marsh