The lesser-known Louvre

Sep 22, 2013, 06:54 IST | Lalit Sultan Farzdan

If you really want to experience all of Louvre's wonders in Paris, go beyond the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo (yes, you must dare). Lalit Sultan Farzdan walks around in the expansive home of inimitable art and takes in the stories of some subtle masterpieces

Yes, the Venus de Milo (c.130 BC) is as impressive as it is made out to be, even more so because the dimensions are superhuman, and yes, Mona Lisa’s smile is as haunting as critics and art lovers claim it to be. But Louvre has much more on offer, artefacts that in no way are less impressive, but may not have made it to every mainstream publication. I contact a seasoned guide, who has more than 20 years’ experience in taking tourists from all over the world on a tour of this major landmark in Paris, and ask her to show me some little-known gems, things that would justify the trouble of standing half an hour in a queue to enter these palatial premises.

The Three Graces gives you an insight into the Greco-Roman idea of femininity. Pics/Lalit Sultan Farzdan

Palais du Louvre has always been the centre of political activity in Paris. Before it was converted into a museum, it has served many kings going back to the 12th century under Philippe Auguste. At present, it occupies 2, 10,000 m2 on the right bank and on a clear day gives you the benefit of a sweeping vista of Paris across the Arche de Triomphe and the emerging skyscrapers around La Défense. Around 10 million tourists visit it every year, drawn by the allure of the famous oeuvres of art, and also a chance to couple a boat ride on the Seine and the magnificent sunsets from one of the many ponts (bridges) on the river along with this priceless history lesson.

The Sleeping Hermaphrodite is increasingly a rage with tourists

My guide advises me to visit it late on a Wednesday or a Friday night, because the museum is open till a quarter to ten, which means that you are not drowned in a sea of camera-toting tourists. It is important to keep an eye on one’s belongings, because, recently, there has been a spate of pick-pocketing incidents across Paris. Once you are ready for the crowd and the majestic experience, you just need to leave your expectations behind to see how many centuries a single compound can hold. Greek antiquities, Persian carpets, Indian Mughal daggers, Modern art, architectural columns, painted roof-frescoes, Medieval paintings, marble sculptures, gold ornaments -- all are here leaving you awestruck at the range. No doubt, one evening is not sufficient, but it is a good primer, provided you know how to pick your sections and restrict your movements to certain parts of this ancient palace. Here are the lesser-known yet very significant artefacts that my guide recommends:

The Baptistere de St Louis was originally retrieved from Syria

Hermaphrodite Endormi (Sleeping Hermaphrodite):
I was first amazed by the bed of this Greek nymph, which resembles a modern mattress to the hilt. Except that it was done in marble, and one and a half centuries after Jesus Christ. The lady, or who looks like a lady from one side, seems to peacefully asleep on this cosy surface. However, there is something bizarre and sinister to the whole design. As you move to the other side, as tourists are often encouraged by guides to do, you discover a man there, which almost brings to mind the surrealists playing with shocking images. Daughter of Hermes and Aphrodite (from who she gets his/her name) Hermaphrodite is the typical Greek representation of a man-woman. This sculpture from the second century AD reproduces an original design of the second century before Jesus Christ, and has an intriguing sensuousness to the figurewhich is offset brutally by the addition of a penis.

Medieval French paintings can be quite a revelation, much like the Pieta by Enguerrand Quarton

The Three Graces
Representing the Greco-Roman virtues of beauty, the arts and fertility, this sculpture is smaller in dimensions than the Hermaphrodite, yet equally striking for the fluidity of the contours of the three women. They are all naked, something that for women came about only after a particular point in the Greek tradition though male nudity was always heroic. My guide told me that for the Greeks there was a strict convention on the size of the male organs. Very big members were for barbarians, while Greek gods are often shown with relatively small penises sheathed with foreskin. Coming back to the iconography of the naked female form, this Roman sculpture follows closely a lost Greek painting which is, in turn reproduced at many other places such as the frescoes at Pompeii, near Naples. The light from the big windows at the sides of the large hall looking over the Cour Carré, the oldest part of the Louvre, accentuates the sumptuousness of the limbs and for a moment, you feel that they might dance into life any moment and tell you more of the lost times and civilisations.

Medieval French Painting
My guide thinks it a shame that visitors from all over the world come to France to look at a painting by an Italian. As much as she appreciates the skill behind La Joconde (Mona Lisa), she thinks that French medieval painting which is stocked extensively in many of the rooms dedicated to that purpose is an equal match in its skill and execution. She recommends the La Pietà de Villeneuve-les-Avignon (c.1455) by Enguerrand Quarton of the Provençal School. The elongated body of Christ stretched across the lap of the distressed Marie may be a very common scene in the European painting of that epoch, yet in its treatment it is visibly different from the art of the Italian masters. The painting looks more sumptuous in the light of the day, for when we returned after a round of a couple of hours, it had acquired a more sombre tone. Definitely not for an evening you are feeling a little low, the heart wrenching portrayal of one of the most gruesome events in Christian mythology is something that stays with you even when you step out of the museum.

Ancient Persian Art
The Louvre boasts of some very important relics from ancient Persia and Mesopotamia. As soon as we were done with the Greek sculptures, my guide insisted that I pay a visit to this large room containing the capitol of one of the pillars from the audience hall of Emperor Darius I (c.550-486). Apparently what was on display was just one-eighth of the height of a typical column, and yet it occupied the entire room almost to the ceiling. I was awestruck by these dimensions, and also by the fact that having been dated to the 6th century BC, not many artefacts could compete with it as far as age was concerned. Darius was a patron of the arts, and his splendours continue to enthrall us in different parts of the world so many years down the line. My guide also taught me to distinguish between bits of the original stone which were darker in tone, and the restoration where the plaster was newer and lighter in colour than the surrounding patches.

Arts de l’Islam and the Baptistere de St Louis
This is the newest addition to the Louvre which has already generated a cult following in the one year it has been open to public. Housed in a different enclosure, the Arts of Islam features artefacts collected from many Muslim-influenced societies across the world. From the art of the Mughals to the Ottomans, the range is indeed mindboggling. However, my guide brought me here chiefly to look at the metal basin which reportedly served during the baptism of Louis XIII. Made initially in Syria during the 14th century, the artefact has the advantage of being signed by the artist no less than six times. One wonders how such expert metalwork from the Middle-East came to occupy such an important function in the house of the French monarchs, but then as the extensive collection of the Louvre demonstrates, human beings are capable of finding inspiration across cultural contexts. My guide asked me, as we were nearing the half past nine deadline, if I wanted to have another look at the Mona Lisa. I told her she had filled me up with so much history in one day, that the only sight I could take any longer was some french fries along with a juicy poulet roti (roasted chicken). Together, we made way for dinner.

Make it happen
The Louvre is open all days of the week except Tuesdays from 9 am till 6 pm. On Wednesday and Friday evenings, additionally, the Museum keeps its doors open till 9.45 pm. A typical all-day ticket costs €12,00 though there are a range of discount tickets and passes on offer for which you can consult online on The Metro station closest to the entrance is Palais Royale Musée de Louvre on the Line 1. Typically, it takes about 45 minutes from Charles de Gaulle airport to the Museum 

Go to top