I Know Why Mona Lisa Smiles
I had a plan for the Louvre Museum in Paris. According to the museum’s website, nearly six million people each year view some of the 35,000 works of art displayed in its 652,000+ square feet of exhibition space. Because most of these six million want to see the museum’s most famous lady, the Mona Lisa is surrounded by crowds much of the time. Like everyone else, I wanted a first-hand view Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, but I hate crowds. Even the thought of being trapped in the midst of a jostling, jockeying throng, bombarded on all sides by people’s energy, makes me positively ill. Hoping to avoid the cattle call, I opted to leave the lady with the enigmatic smile for last, right before closing time.
Inside the famous glass pyramid I descended to the main entry hall, already choked with tourists at 9 a.m. Hastily, I grabbed a map and fled into the Denon Wing on the lower ground floor, which was strangely bereft of traffic. At the end of a long gallery filled with Northern European Sculptures I came face to face with Saint Mary Magdalene, a unique early 16th century wood sculpture finished in polychrome. According to legend, Mary Magdalene was a repentant sinner who lived a life of seclusion in the cave of Sainte-Baume, clothed only by her hair. Every day the angels raised her up in the sky to hear the heavenly chorus.
Awed by the 500-year old Lime tree wood carving, I circled the glass display case, examining every detail. Eschewing the Gothic tradition of thin, unreal figures, master sculptor Gregor Erhart endowed Mary Magdalene with voluptuous dimensions preferred by the emerging Renaissance movement. Originally held up by carved angels, the sculpture was part of a retable that is thought to have been suspended from the vault of a church in Augsburg, Germany. At some point, the sculpture was taken down and the angels were removed. Now separated from her heavenly entourage, the figure exudes a sensuality that is hard to reconcile with the image of a mystic ascetic. From the lifelike flesh tones of her nude body to the flowing locks of hair that cascaded to her thighs, she was magnificent.
After an hour of educating myself about 12th to 16th century sculpture I left the almost deserted hall and headed for the adjoining Islamic Art exhibit that opened in September of 2012. Here I discovered more breathtakingly beautiful objects, including the Baptistère de St.Louis, a hammered brass basin, engraved and decorated with inlaid silver, gold and black paste. The exterior of this masterpiece, crafted in Syria or Egypt between 1320-1340, is decorated with a series of figures carrying bows, maces, or swords, heading toward a hunter king. Inside the bowl, hunting and battle scenes alternate with an enthroned king. The name of the vessel derives from its use in the baptism of Louis XIII in 1601, and its association with King St. Louis from 1742 to 1791.
The gallery of Islamic Art displays 3,000 objects from the Louvre’s 14,000 piece collection. Pieces date from the dawn of Islam in the 7th century to the early 19th century and include architectural elements such as an intricate mosaic floor, precious weapons from India, glassware manufactured in Iran, stone and ivory objects, metalwork, ceramics, textiles and carpets, and even manuscripts. I wandered through this uncrowded gallery for for more than an hour before making my way to see another of the Louve’s other famous masterpieces, Aphrodite, better known as the Venus de Milo.
Like the Mona Lisa, which has for centuries engendered theories about why she smiles, Venus de Milo is shrouded in mystery. Discovered in 1820 on the island of Melos, Greece, she was carved from two different blocks of marble. The bust, legs, left shoulder and foot were sculpted separately and affixed to the main body with vertical pegs, but her arms were never found. She may have been leaning against a pillar or resting her elbow on someone’s shoulder. If she held a bow or an amphora, she was Artemis or a Danaid. She could have held an apple, crown, shield, or a mirror, all of which are symbols of different goddesses. Due to her sensual curves and half-naked state she has come to represent Aphrodite, but she could just as easily be the sea goddess Amphitrite, who was venerated on the island of Milo.
By now I was in the more popular galleries, fighting my way through hundreds of school children on field trips and young artists slouched over sketch pads, reproducing the most famous works of art. Exhaustion was setting in, but there was so much more to see. After a brief stop at the tender yet erotic Psyche and Cupid sculpture by Antonio Canova and Michelangelo’s Captive (The Dying Slave), I crossed over to the Richelieu wing in search of The Law Code of Hammurabi. This stele, erected by the king of Babylon in the 18th century B.C., is inscribed with almost three hundred laws and legal decisions governing daily life in the kingdom of Babylon. Not only is this work an exceptional source of information about the society, religion, economy, and history of this period, it has also served as a template through the ages as modern law evolved.
The lack of daylight in a hallway window and my aching feet both told me it was finally time to hunt down the Mona Lisa. I made my way to the painting gallery and wriggled through a small crowd still clustered around da Vinci’s masterpiece. And there she was: a tiny, dark and dreary portrait. I was underwhelmed. The history of the Mona Lisa remains shrouded in history to this day. No one knows who sat for the portrait, who commissioned it, how long da Vinci worked on it, or how it came to be in the French royal collection, but for me her enigmatic smile is no longer a mystery. Thousands of exquisite works of art in the Louvre are more beautiful and historic than the Mona Lisa, yet she remains the museum’s number one draw. I’d be smiling, too.
Getting there: The Louvre is easily reached by the Paris Metro; exit at Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre on lines 1 and 7.
Hours: The museum is open every day except Tuesday and some public holidays. Hours are from 9 a.m.to 6 p.m.; open until 9:45 p.m. every Wednesday and Friday.
Information desks: Beneath the Pyramid and at the Portes de Lyon entrance. Telephone: (0) 1 40 20 53 17 (country code +33)
Tickets: Valid for entry all day, last ticket sold at 5:15 p.m. (9:15 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays). Full price €11 (about $15 USD); exhibitions in the Hall Napoléon €12 (about $16.25 USD); combined tickets €15 (about $20.60 USD). Upon presentation of the appropriate supporting documentation, admission is free for young people under 18, job seekers, disabled visitors and one accompanying person. Admission is free for EEC citizens under 26 and practicing teachers. Visitors with tickets purchased in advance do not need to wait in line. Reservations can be made by visiting www.louvre.fr. Admission is also free for everyone on the first Sunday of every month.
Services: Cloakroom, lockers, and wheelchairs are available at no cost. Cafes, cafeterias, and restaurants are available on site. Restrooms are available throughout the museum.
Visiting Rules: Photography, without flash, and filming are permitted in the permanent exhibition areas. Photography and/or filming is not allowed in the temporary exhibit areas. Use of mobile phones, smoking, eating, drinking, loud discussions, touching the collection, and running are all expressly prohibited.
Author’s note: If you’re considering a visit to Paris, my favorite site for finding the best prices on accommodations is Booking.com. I earn a small sum if you book by clicking on this link to accommodations in Paris, which helps keep this blog free for you to read.