After the terrorist attacks on Paris in November 2015, tricolour flags were waved around the world and international solidarity with France was vociferously expressed. It seems the world was being hypocritical. Many people began altering holiday plans, even before mass murder came to Nice, with the Bastille Day truck attack. Tourism in France is so badly hit that even the Louvre has recorded a fall in visitor numbers.
The country’s grandest museum has announced that it had 7.3 million visitors in 2016, considerably down from a colossal 9.3 million two years previously. It even breaks down the international shortfall: declines in visitors of 31% from China, 61% from Japan and 18% from the US.
Before you fall for news stories in some quarters that make Paris sound like a dying city where wild dogs fight for the last scrap of foie gras, let’s get this in proportion. The Louvre, however, remains the most popular museum in the world. Its nearest rival, the British Museum in London, counted 6.8 million heads in 2015 – and was delighted with that.
Having spent time in Paris and other parts of France in 2016, I find the idea that it has been culturally shattered by recent events both ridiculous and offensive. No one who has recently queued for a lift up the Eiffel Tower would say Paris is short of tourists. Nor would anyone who has spent an evening in the Marais call it a joyless or depressed city. What struck me in Paris last year was what had impressed me when I visited New York after the attack on the World Trade Center: the moving and beautiful sense of a great city overcoming its wounds with sheer vitality and elan.
It’s really pathetic if, after all the Francophile flag waving in 2015, some people are scared to go the city that invented the modern world. This is especially true of anyone who misses out on the Louvre. To be honest, some parts of this palatial museum could benefit from far fewer visitors. Fewer heads to look over to see the Mona Lisa can only be a good thing. But the Louvre is so big and complex, so rich in masterpieces from everywhere from ancient Mesopotamia to 19th-century Romanticism, that you can always find near-empty galleries to roam in. This is not a museum you can assimilate in one visit. I went there twice last year and managed to do only the department of French paintings properly, concentrating on Poussin the first time, Watteau and Chardin the second.
No museum rivals the Louvre’s encyclopedic fullness. The Prado has a more idiosyncratically characterful collection and the National Gallery a more manageable one, but the Louvre lets you sample or study the entire history of art under one roof. It is so laden with glories that crowds making a beeline for the Leonardos (not just the Mona Lisa but also a couple of Virgins) often walk straight past Michelangelo’s The Rebellious Slave and Dying Slave without noticing. And when I contemplate these sublime sculptures I tend to miss Canova’s Cupid and Psyche in the same room.
Don’t forget Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, or Van Eyck’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, and above all don’t miss the great hall of French history paintings that the characters in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Bande à Part run throughin a great moment of punk art history.
Some of the strangest works of art in the Louvre – if you can find them in the depths of its French department – are the paintings of Hubert Robert, who in the 18th century painted grandiose vistas of classical ruins that ache with melancholic meditation on the decline of empire. He also painted the museum itself as a visionary Romantic temple of art, for after being imprisoned during the Reign of Terror he served on the committee that created this revolutionary museum. The basis of the Louvre is the former French royal collection – it has so many works by Leonardo, for instance, because he was the court painter to Francis I – that was seized in the French revolution. Its grandeur was turned up a notch by Napoleon, and throughout modern times it has inspired artists such as Renoir (who came to gawp at its immense Veronese), and Picasso (who copied The Women of Algiers by Delacroix).
The cultural power the Louvre emanates is an awe-inspiring expression of the French republic. I find this reassuring. France is not going to fall apart any time soon, you have to recognise after visiting this museum that proclaims Paris as the custodian of world civilisation. Museums are optimistic beacons of enlightenment in our dangerous world – and the Louvre is the most luminous of all. Make it your pilgrimage for 2017, and help it beat the terrorists with a record year.