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Unlocking the Louvre's secrets

The world's most lavish museum now plays a starring role in `The Da Vinci Code,' but its intrigue spans miles and centuries.

May 14, 2006|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Paris — WHEN "The Da Vinci Code" opens Friday in the U.S., one of the first places moviegoers will see is the Louvre, where the story starts. Director Ron Howard was allowed to film in the museum, so moviegoers will see the real thing: architect I.M. Pei's Pyramid, the 1,450-foot Grande Galerie and the Salle des Etats where Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" hangs.

For some viewers, scenes shot there will fly by, but lovers of the Louvre may pause between handfuls of popcorn to admire the museum in the heart of Paris that saw record-breaking numbers of visitors last year.

Since the filming there last spring, the museum has distanced itself from the movie, reflecting the French art establishment's well-known scorn for popular culture and the Louvre's weariness with the phenomenon created by "The Da Vinci Code," Dan Brown's controversial 2003 mystery about the supposed secret history of Christianity. Officials at the museum aren't publicly linking the dramatic increase in visitation -- from about 6 million in 2000 to 7.5 million last year -- with the novel, even though 57 million copies of the book are in print in 44 languages.

After all, the Louvre is not a movie set. It is a world-famous art gallery and museum of mankind in the surpassingly beautiful abode of French kings, like London's National Gallery, British Museum and Buckingham Palace all rolled into one.

The Louvre has been standing alongside the Seine for more than 800 years, first as a medieval fortress built around 1190 by crusading king Philippe Auguste (Philip II) and then as a rambling royal palace on which a long chain of French artists and architects put their marks. The kings of France were insatiable collectors, so when the palace opened as a museum in 1793, the treasure-trove became the property of the French people.

After the French Revolution, art kept rolling in, acquired through donations, pilferage during the Napoleonic Wars, field work by French archeologists and a now-defunct law that allowed curators to bargain-shop in customs-office basements for artwork barred from exportation.

The Louvre has 300,000 works of art spanning almost 9,000 years of human civilization, including 52 Rubens, 12 Rembrandts and, thanks to the connoisseurship of Francis I in the 16th century, more Da Vincis than Italy (or anyplace else).

"The Louvre is the book in which we learn to reach," French painter Paul Cezanne wrote in a 1905 letter.

The museum today

NOW, there is even more to the museum, largely because of a huge project launched in 1981 by then-French President Francois Mitterrand. The Grand Louvre, as it is called, put a modern glass pyramid designed by American architect Pei at the center of the classically French building ensemble; doubled exhibition space by opening the northern wing, formerly occupied by the French Finance Ministry; and gave the complex a subterranean shopping mall.

When the $960-million Grand Louvre was first announced, the French protested. It was too expensive and ambitious. Critics scoffed at Pei's pyramid, and journalists dubbed Mitterrand "Ramses II" for the Pharaoh whose building lust is documented in the museum's Egyptian wing.

But the complaints subsided when the Grand Louvre reached completion around 2000. With a new entrance in the middle of the Cour Napoleon, the museum seemed far more user-friendly and Pei's controversial pyramid became a beloved landmark.

The next remarkable thing was the naming of an energetic, open-minded director in 2001. Henri Loyrette was 48 when he took over at the Louvre after running the nearby Musee d'Orsay.

Although saddled with problems pointed out by an embarrassing 2003 government auditor's report -- insufficient security, staff laxness and mismanagement of the collections -- Loyrette managed to turn things around. Under his stewardship, the Louvre launched an Islamic Arts Department to be housed in a $60-million glass-roofed courtyard, scheduled for completion in 2009, and supported the creation of a satellite museum in the economically depressed northeastern French city of Metz.

Recent restorations of the dazzling 17th century Galerie d'Apollon and Salle des Etats, home of "The Mona Lisa," were greeted with jubilation. But among jealous guardians of the national patrimony and opponents of privatization, there was also consternation because the projects were paid for by the French oil company Total and by the Nippon Television Network.

Unlike past directors, Loyrette has aggressively sought funding from private sources to augment the museum's resources. In April, he announced the formation of a partnership between the Louvre and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Between 2006 and 2009, the Louvre will lend the High enough art for three special exhibitions, including masterpieces by Raphael and Nicolas Poussin.

Meanwhile, U.S. sponsors of the exhibitions -- including Delta, UPS and Coca-Cola -- have pledged $6.4 million for refurbishments to the Louvre's collection of 18th century French furniture.

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