aujourd’hui la Louvre, demain LE MONDE

I have a backlog of new material which I want to post in chronological order, but it’s been a challenge to find time and energy on this trip to put it up and edit it; by now I’m in Barcelona, in my hotel room sleeping in after the first night of the La Mercé festival. I’m also feeling more and more strongly that I should keep a separate URL for technical research-related posts about what I’m working on, and keep this one for personal things including travel adventures and science posts for the lay public. That way it’ll be easier to brand each URL according to the audience I expect to be interested in each one. Still, for now I’ll just spool out what I’ve got over the next few days.

September 16: Today I decided I was going to try and do as much of the Louvre as I could in one day. I went there while in town for a collaboration meeting back in 2005, but I had no concept of how much of it I’d actually seen, so I thought it was worth going back. The short answer is that I saw more of it than I thought, and so next time I will probably go to the Orsay instead, but it was lovely nonetheless.

On the way across I found that the one of the metal railings preventing people from falling off the Pont de l’Archevêché1 was covered in padlocks. At least some of these represent engagement events, with people’s names written on each lock and fastened to the bridge. Kind of a cute tradition. I wonder, if they break up or get divorced, whether they come and retrieve the lock? Hm.

Since I passed right by Notre Dame on a Sunday, I couldn’t resist. As I said before, all the flashes going off in the side aisles made the service in session feel almost like a press conference during God’s re-election campaign. I saw several signs telling people not to do this, so it isn’t as though the church staff thinks it’s okay. I’m guessing that Notre Dame gets a lot more tourist traffic than Munich’s Frauenkirche, to the point where they can’t really enforce the ban and the best they can do is ineffectually ask visitors to please be respectful. (Same with the Louvre. Even a zone defense is inadequate.) All the same, I savored a quiet moment in the space for about five minutes, with the organ playing and the cantor chanting Psalms, before the paparazzi got on my nerves too much for me to stay any longer.

After about ten minutes’ walk I arrived at the Louvre, where the queue was not nearly as bad as I’d feared. In fact, even later in the afternoon the queue was never remotely as bad as the one which stretched for several blocks from the Palais de Justice. I haven’t a clue what could have inspired people to wait in a queue that long.

I decided not to go with the audio tour, but instead read the notes on the placards, as I usually do. These were in French throughout, so I got some interesting vocabulary workout: affluent = tributary to a river (the English word connoting a flow of income?); terre cuite = terracotta pottery (“baked earth”); pierre noire = graphite (“black rock”). The names of saints carved in Greek on some of the medieval pieces were fun to sound out as well.

The rest of the visit passed in bite-sized impressions2: Tiny inscriptions in cuneiform on a rock, telling Lord knows what tangled genealogy or the cow-by-cow accounts of a rich landowner. More cuneiform on the bar to the gates of a city, in my imagination a mystic ward against invasion. A medieval chapel, scaled down and all in dark metal; I have a hard time believing this wasn’t a modern piece, but it was in the middle of a gallery full of very old things. Windows in the stairwell with dark metal struts placed askew behind the panes, subverting their symmetry. Paintings of familiar Christian themes: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the money changers in the temple of Jerusalem, the garden of Gethsemane, the Stations of the Cross, the Pieta, Jesus’s appearance to Thomas. The evolution of these themes from the stylized, flat medieval paintings typical of Greek icons to the works of the Renaissance and Baroque masters who breathe human life and honest expression into these old tableaux. A vibrant Virgin and Child with St. Anne in front of a stunning mountain landscape, which turned out to be a famous da Vinci I’d never seen before; the stylistic similarities to La Gioconda were unmistakable. Napoleon in his finery, and a collection of vanity paintings commissioned by some haughty duchess, in which the angels literally carry her portrait down from heaven. Cupid and Psyche, all presence, tenderness and sinuous curves in purest white marble; I was sure they would float away at any moment.

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That was about all I could see before I started to keel over. Lunch didn’t help much; all that museum was exhausting. I wandered around the Tuileries for a while, but after noticing I was irrationally cranky about paying a single euro more even for water, realized it was time to call it a day. Staggering along, I eventually came to a small cafe where I could barely mumble in English, “me, dinner, here?” They fed me some excellent quiche, after which I revived somewhat; but I spent the rest of my evening lounging in my hotel room, writing, reading, calling my mom, and other bits of mental maintenance.

Live and learn, I guess, and here were, I think, some lessons learned about how to tour around: don’t skimp on food and hydration, but bring snacks and a water bottle in a small bag it’s easy to keep close tabs on.

1pont de l’Arche-Vâche? heheh, “I’m going to see the Cow Beneath the Sea”, uh-oh this is why we have filters

2See also these two interesting posts on the demerits of taking photographs in museums, with or without a flash. The photos in the slideshow shown here were all taken without flash, in permitted areas, after studying the work for some time, and were taken more for the purpose of documenting what I saw (and sometimes adding my own spin and composition) than for reproducing the works to admire later. Still, the points that it’s rude and/or hurts museum revenue are well taken: the crowds did get really annoying, the flashes were distracting and I didn’t buy anything in the gift shop, though I did look to see whether there was anything I wanted.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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