Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mona Lisa: My Louvre Private Tour

She stared at me with those dark brown eyes, and I couldn't resist. I had to look back. There were only four people in the room. Three of us were men, and we were all staring. Her hands were folded daintily, right over left, as she sat, still and picturesque, holding us captive with her gaze. Perfectly proportioned, she had her hair parted in front, and she let it flow down to her shoulders. Her lips looked soft to the touch. She was the pure portrait of beauty, and her expression held a hint of mystery.

All that separated us was a tinted gray piece of glass, and though she held my eyes for a long time, I couldn't reach out and touch her. I wouldn't want to smudge one of the greatest works of art in the world.

I'm not being figurative. I was staring at the Mona Lisa, the masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci, which is on permanent display at the Musee du Louvre in Paris.

I must admit, I'm no art connoisseur, but there is something about that painting that tantalizes in the same way that a beautiful, snow-capped mountain range draws you up toward the summit. Maybe it's the fact that it's one of the most recognizable works of art known to man. Maybe it really is the transcendence of Leonardo's artistry. Either way, I was feeling extremely fortunate to be standing before it, especially when on a Tuesday when the museum was closed.

The Louvre is arguably the greatest museum in the world. I had heard this, but having never been to Europe, I really had no reference against which to test such a huge claim. After visiting Paris, I still don't have an empirical measuring stick, but seeing the sprawl of the museum campus and strolling its halls, I can't see how it can have any rivals.

My private Louvre tour started when my boss and I, jet-lagged and without a cell phone, showed up at the Louvre armed only with a vague e-mail referral to a press contact, a few pitiful digital cameras, and clothes that we had been wearing for more than 24 hours straight. We'd been through a lot. Our flight was almost nine hours, and we'd taken a dirty, graffiti-ridden ride into the city on the metro. Commuters glared at me the whole way when they noticed my 45-lb. suitcase taking up a valuable seat.

Due to some poor planning, the hotel we spent nearly two hours finding was not the same where we had a reservation. After that saga, we took the metro to the Arc de Triomphe and took the long walk from there down the Avenue des Champs Elysees to the Louvre, my feet aching all the way.

After a true Parisian cafe lunch, my head was pounding and my body protesting as I tried to push through the jet lag. We crept into the administrative offices of the Louvre and sat down in a small room that once housed the man who tended the horses when the majestic building served as a castle.

A press aide came and led us down into the catacombs, passing us off to another girl, who led us across the complex to the dark office of the head of the sculpture department. After a 15-minute interview, one of our handlers whisked us off to show us a new exhibition of Egyptian art, which focuses on how the pharaohs prepared for the afterlife. I thought this would be the extent of our tour, but as we were walking out, our handler (the fourth since we arrived) said, "Would you like to see anything else?"

Seriously? A better question would've been, "What don't you want to see?" We had only been in a few rooms. Thousands of sculptures, paintings, reliefs, pieces of pottery and other artworks awaited our ooo's and aaah's. Where to begin?

The handler must've noticed the dumbfounded look on my face as I considered the boundless options. He offered a superb suggestion: "How about Italian art?" Like I said, I'm no connoisseur, but that sounded good to me. Suddenly I wasn't so tired anymore.

We followed the signs to the Mona Lisa, where I noticed that her majesty is not in her size. It's actually a relatively small painting, especially juxtaposed with some of the other artworks in the room where it is displayed. Opposite her small portrait, a larger-than-life painting occupies a massive wall. Beyond that lies a cavernous hallway where an endless procession of legendary works awaits. I counted more than five Leonardos during our brief walkthrough, and there were countless others, marked by Italian names that better-educated folks surely would've recognized.

On the way down, we walked quickly past the Winged Victory of Samothrace, a famous 2,300-year-old sculpture from Ancient Greece, and we stopped in on another Greek all-star, the Venus de Milo. I felt a bit sacrilegious in that I didn't know much about any of the beautiful works that surrounded me and couldn't exactly tell you why they were considered masterpieces.

We passed through more hallways before emerging back out in the entry area beneath the museum's iconic glass pyramid. With a bit more spring in our step, my boss and I said our goodbyes with the handlers and continued our tour of Paris, shaking our heads at the access that journalism can give.

Watch an exhausted Trevor talk about the experience in the video below:

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