Written by Saskya Vandoorne, BioreportsParis, France
Contributors Mark EsplinAntonella Francini
As the world’s most visited museum awakens, escalators that once carried up to 40,000 pairs of feet a day loop quietly through the empty lobby.
Lockdown restrictions shuttered the Louvre in late October, leaving world-famous artworks like “Venus de Milo,” “Liberty Leading the People” and the “Mona Lisa” without their usual crowds of admirers.
But they’re not completely alone — the museum is making the most of the closures by carrying out long-planned renovations.
“(The Louvre) is still living, even though it seems really asleep from the outside,” says project manager Gautier Moysset, standing in front of a set of 19th-century doors that once opened onto the bedchamber of French kings.
Behind him, Gaëlle Dulac is carefully bringing the doors back to life, switching between paintbrushes made from hog bristle and badger hair as she recreates the grain of the wood with layers of paint.
She is one of a team of experts and artisans that has been working five days a week to refurbish the renaissance palace. Also among them is curator Côme Fabre, who is overseeing the re-mounting of “Nude Youth Sitting by the Sea,” by French artist Hippolyte Flandrin. Under Fabre’s watchful eye, four men balance on scaffolding and hoist the painting of a curled-up young man into position.
The “Mona Lisa” alone in the Louvre without visitors.
The curator says the quiet period has helped him reconsider how the Louvre displays its vast collection.
“All of a sudden a painting seems too big (or) too small, or the frame doesn’t fit with the ones nearby,” he explains. “You have to listen to what the works have to say. Sometimes they don’t like each other and you have to separate them.”
Curator Julien Cuny is also using the opportunity to reflect on the Persian collections he oversees.
“There needs to be a coherence in the museum. What is the work doing here? How is it speaking to the other works?” he says, guiding a forklift carrying a 400-kilogram (882-pound) stele through a passageway lined with Roman marble sculptures.
While thankful for the time he has been given, Cuny knows the Louvre has taken a huge hit during the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, the museum lost over 90 million euros ($109 million) in revenue and experienced a 72% drop in visitors.
“It’s sad because from a logistical point of view, we can do a lot,” Cuny says. “But the artworks, they were made to be seen.”