I have a love/hate relationship with the Louvre. The famous museum in Paris has one of the finest collections of art in the world, with nearly 35,000 artifacts on display. It is a living, breathing humanities lesson. But fame comes with a price – the Louvre welcomes nearly 10 million visitors annually from around the globe, and that number is expected to reach 12 million in the next decade. The entrance lines can be intense, with masses of visitors pushing to get through the doors of the glass pyramid as if the masterpieces are about to vanish into thin air. Thankfully, said masterpieces are spread across 60,000 square meters of display space, so it’s possible to find some breathing room.
To help you navigate the museum’s vast expanses, here are my 10 favorite rooms, sculptures and paintings at the Louvre:
1. Napoleon Apartments
The grand apartments of Napoleon III are unquestionably my favorite part of the Louvre. The rooms were constructed during the Second Empire and have remained frozen in time, giving visitors a glimpse into the world of 19th century imperial France. The apartments are a riot of burgundy silk damask, gold paint, and crystal chandeliers and are sure to leave you dazzled.
2. Egyptian Antiquities
Napoleon Bonaparte’s 18th century expeditions to Egypt sparked public interest in the ancient and mysterious civilization. Soon thereafter, a Frenchman deciphered the hieroglyphic language and royal backing was secured. The collection now includes more than 50,000 pieces, from mummies and sculptures to household items and papyrus scrolls.
3. The Winged Victory of Samothrace
The sculpture of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, is exquisite. From her feathery wings to her flowing gown, it boggles my mind that so much delicate detail could be chiseled from a slab of marble, in the 2nd century BC no less. Victory stands tall on the prow of a ship, celebrating a naval victory for the people of Rhodes. Now the world celebrates her as one of the finest examples of Hellenistic sculpture.
4. Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss
This romantic 18th-century sculpture depicts a scene from Greek and Roman mythology in which Cupid awakens his true love Psyche from a death-like slumber. The emotion and tenderness of the moment is beautifully wrought.
5. Venus de Milo
Part of Venus’s allure is that so little is know about her origins. When the statue was found on the Greek island of Milos, the arms and accompanying details were already lost, making it impossible to identify. Due to the sensual nature of the pose, the sculpture has been attributed to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love – better known as Venus from Roman mythology.
6. Mona Lisa
Another masterpiece shrouded in mystery is the Mona Lisa. Who was she? Leonardo da Vinci painted the portrait in Florence at the beginning of the 16th century, yet somehow it ended up in the French royal collection. Why? At this point all we can do is speculate, and that’s part of the charm. Yes, the crowds surrounding Mona are ridiculous and it can be a challenge to get a good view of that famous smile, but it’s still incredible to see the painting in person.
7. Hammurabi’s Code
History nerd alert: the Law Code of Hammurabi is one of the most fascinating pieces in the Louvre, and possibly the world. The basalt stele is carved with nearly 300 laws that governed life in Babylon, detailing both potential crimes and the often severe punishments meted out by King Hammurabi. Here’s an excerpt:
“If a mason has built a house for a man…and the house he has built falls down causing the death of the owner of the house, this mason shall be killed. If he causes the death of the child of the owner of this house, the mason’s child will be killed.” Yikes!
8. The Rebellious Slave
Michelangelo created two slave sculptures for the tomb of Pope Julius II, though the significance of the chained figures is unclear. The Dying Slave (not pictured) seems resigned to his fate while the Rebellious Slave struggles mightily to get free of his bonds. Both sculptures were left unfinished when funds for the pope’s tomb ran out.
9. Near Eastern Antiquities
The fabled cities of Mesopotamia and Persia come to life at the Louvre, thanks to the 19th-century excavations of French scholars and diplomats. It’s amazing to see what they found buried beneath the sand! Palace frescoes and columns, monumental stele and statues, all thousands of years old and many surprisingly well preserved.
10. The Louvre and Tuileries Palaces
Before its current incarnation as a public art museum, the Louvre was home to the French royal family. In the 14th century, King Charles V converted a no-longer-needed fortress into his royal abode; each subsequent ruler adapted and enlarged the palace to his specifications. Catherine de Medici had the Palais des Tuileries built nearby in the 16th century, which was joined to the Louvre a few decades later. The furnishings may be long gone, but the ornate floors and ceilings can still be enjoyed.
Visiting the Louvre can be stressful, so it’s essential to have a plan going in. First, get the Paris Museum Pass, which will allow you to bypass the line and save you money if you plan to take in several of the city’s fabulous attractions. Second, you should have an idea of what you want to see at the Louvre. The building complex is so vast and the artworks so spread out that you could spend a week inside and still not get to it all. But be flexible – even the best-laid plans can go awry. I was keen to see “The Lacemaker” by Johannes Vermeer, so we headed to the Dutch paintings room on the museum’s third floor. Unfortunately, we visited on the one day a month that the room was closed. Fortunately, the rest of the collection made up for it.
Have you been to the Louvre? How was your experience? Have any favorite artworks?