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Unseen wonders

An artist is engrossed in bringing alive a statue with fluid strokes of his pencil

An artist is engrossed in bringing alive a statue with fluid strokes of his pencil  

There’s more to the Louvre Museum in Paris than the Mona Lisa.

“Where can I see Mona Lisa?” asked the man with a camera slung on his shoulder and a handycam clasped in his hand. Without batting an eyelid, the lady in attendance pointed towards the corridor on the left and said, “Room six. Mona Lisa Room.”

A 2010 survey said that, of the 8.5 million people who visited the Musée du Louvre (Louvre Museum) in Paris, a staggering seven million only went to see Leonardo da Vinci’s celebrated painting. But the world’s most well-known museum has a collection that would interest even a lay enthusiast of history and art.

Hammurabi’s Code: The 7.5-feet tall stone slab, in the shape of an index finger, sits on a low platform in Room No. 3 of the Richelieu Wing on the ground floor in Near Eastern Antiquities section. The slab is a ‘book’; a Constitution with legal codes inscribed on it. This is the famous Hammurabi’s Code, which is more than 3,800 years old. Written in cuneiform script and Akkadian language, this ancient Babylonian law code is the forerunner of all modern codes of law. It is sensational, by today’s standards, in the way it covers not only matters of commercial transactions, crime and governance, but also issues relating to divorce and sexual behaviour.

It seems somewhat unfair that this pioneering document — a landmark in the march of civilisation — is probably best known for Law number 196: “If a man destroys the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one breaks a man’s bone, they shall break his bone.”

Napoleon’s coronation: On December 2, 1804, Jacques-Louis David, the neoclassical French painter, was invited to the Notre-Dame Cathedral to witness the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte as the Emperor. David was invited by Napoleon himself, to capture the ceremony in an imposing painting. David did not disappoint the emperor.

The large canvas, 32 ft long and over 20 ft in height, adorns the wall of Room 75 of Denon Wing. It is an exceptional illustration of David’s ‘Empire Style’, the cerebral brand of historical paintings that he developed, notable for its harmony, heightened feelings and use of warm Venetian colours. But hold on. For, there’s a trick.

Art historian and curator Sylvain Laveissiere reveals that Louis David played with the painting at Napoleon’s insistence. While history has it that Napoleon crowned himself in a show of imperial arrogance, the painting shows Napoleon, already crowned as Emperor, crowning his wife Joséphine as Empress thereby evading the harsher traits of Napoleon’s character and presenting him as less authoritarian. And it doesn’t end there. Seen seated on the high dais is Napoleon’s mother Letizia Bonaparte who disapproved of her son’s coronation as an Emperor and did not attend the ceremony. Also the painting shows the Pope making a gesture of blessing, David’s original sketch had His Holiness’ hands resting on his knees.

A wonder lurks around every corner of the Louvre. The alluring statue of Aphrodite, known as the Venus de Milo, has intoxicated the lay and the pedantic since the time this Greek masterpiece was found in the island of Melos in 1820. In Room 24 of Sully Wing on the second floor, a class is in progress with students squatting on the floor while the teacher explains George de La Tour’s masterpiece Le Tricheur (The Cheat). Alas, the discourse is in French. Elsewhere, in a courtyard, an artist is engrossed in bringing alive a statue with fluid strokes of his pencil.

I look up the map to find my way to Michelangelo’s The Rebellious Slave. It’s already 5.30 p.m. and so much remains unseen.

Quick tips

The easiest way to get to Louvre Museum is to take the Paris Metro and alight either at Palais Royal Musée du Louvre or at Louvre Rivoli.

The Louvre is closed on all Tuesdays and on January 1, May 1 and December 25.

Book your ticket online to avoid long queues. Remember to collect them from specified outlets, as they are not available at the Louvre.

Alternatively, the Paris Museum Pass allows entry into several museums including the Louvre.

The Louvre’s collection cannot be completed in one day. Make a list of what you want to see and find them on the map.

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Printable version | Apr 1, 2020 3:13:53 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/unseen-wonders/article7018569.ece

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