PARIS – From his bulletproof case in the Louvre Museum, Mona Lisa’s smile encountered an unknown sight the other morning: emptiness. The gallery where crowds of visitors flocked to ogle her day after day was a void, deserted under the last coronavirus containment in France.
Around the corner, the Winged Victory of Samothrace floated quietly above a marble staircase, majestic in the absence of selfie-sticks and groups of tourists. In the medieval basement of the Louvre, the Great Sphinx of Tanis loomed in the dark like a granite ghost behind bars.
However, in a rare and monumental stillness, the sounds of life awoke in the great rooms of the Louvre.
The rat-a-tat of a jackhammer echoed from a ceiling above the Sphinx’s head. Rap music sounded from the bronze room beneath Cy Twombly’s ceiling in the Sully Wing, near where workers were sawing hardwood floors for a giant new floor. In the old apartments of Louis XIV, restorers in surgical masks climbed on scaffolding to pack gold leaves on ornate moldings.
The world’s most visited museum – nearly 10 million in 2019, mostly from overseas – struggles with its longest closure since World War II, as pandemic restrictions keep its treasures locked away. But without a crowd of up to 40,000 people a day, museum officials are seizing a golden opportunity to polish a major renovation for returning visitors.
“For some projects, the containment allowed us to do in five days what would have previously taken five weeks,” said Sébastien Allard, general curator and director of the paintings department at the Louvre.
Louvre lovers had to be content with seeing masterpieces during the pandemic through virtual tours and hashtags #LouvreAt Home and @ Louvre Museum. Millions of viewers got a spectacular fix this month thanks to the hit Netflix series Lupine, in which actor Omar Sy, playing a thief gentleman, stars in action-packed scenes in the Louvre’s best-known galleries and under IM Pei’s glass pyramid.
But virtual reality can hardly replace reality. Louvre officials hope the government will reopen cultural institutions to the public soon, although the date will depend on how the virus evolves.
In the meantime, a small army of around 250 artisans has been working since France’s last lockdown came into effect on October 30. Instead of waiting until Tuesday – the only day the Louvre once closed – curators, restaurateurs, curators and other experts are moving forward five days a week to complete major renovations that had started before the pandemic and introduce new embellishments they hope to complete by mid-February.
Some of the work is relatively straightforward, such as dusting the frames of nearly 4,500 paintings. Some are Herculean, like the makeover of the Egyptian Antiquities Room and the Sully Wing. Almost 40,000 explanatory plaques in English and French are hung next to works of art.
Even before the pandemic, the Louvre was taking a close look at crowd management, as mass tourism had caused many galleries to be suffocated by groups of tourists. While travel restrictions have reduced the number of visitors, the museum will limit entry to holders of tickets with reservations when it reopens to comply with health protocols.
Further changes are planned – like new interactive experiences, including yoga sessions every half hour on Wednesdays near the masterpieces of Jacques-Louis David and Rubens, and workshops where actors perform scenes from famous paintings just in front of the cloth.
“It’s a call to say that the museum is alive and that people have a right to do these things here,” said Marina-Pia Vitali, deputy director of interpretation who oversees the projects.
As I walked through the halls on a recent visit, I felt a thrill seeing the Venus of Milo get up from its pedestal – minus the glow of iPhones – and admire, at your leisure, the sheer drape of fabric chiseled in spotless marble.
In the cavernous red room, which houses monumental French paintings, including the coronation of Napoleon as Emperor at Notre Dame and the Raft of the Medusa, depicting gray-skinned souls just clinging to life – it was uplifting not to be carried away by crowds.
In the Egyptian wing, antiques experts cleaned a two-ton granite stele that will dominate a new entrance. Workers are also renovating the Mastaba of Akhethotep, part of an Egyptian tomb that is among the Louvre’s most popular artifacts, in a dust-covered gallery strewn with saws and hammers.
Sophie Duberson, restorer, took a child’s toothbrush and gently removed the grime from the hieroglyphics on the stele, which provide instructions for reviving Sénousret, head of the Egyptian treasury during the 12th Dynasty, in the afterlife .
Vincent Rondot, director of Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre, inspected a six-story temporary support structure that had been built around the Mastaba, where a new angular entrance wall would be erected in time for the hoped-for crowds to return.
“No one celebrates the virus,” Rondot said, as sparks erupted from a nearby worker’s cutting tool. “But we can be happy about this situation because it allows us to concentrate on the work. “
At the same time, social distancing protocols restrict the number of workers allowed in confined spaces, which can sometimes hold back progress.
Craftsmen applying gold leaf in Louis XIV’s bedrooms, for example, had to remove the masks to blow on the metal as thin as paper. Workers have to stay away from each other so less can get the job done and the job can take longer.
The pandemic has also taken its toll on the planning of special exhibitions. The Louvre lends around 400 works a year to other museums, and benefits from numerous loans for special exhibitions.
“It’s really complicated because all the museums in the world are changing their planning,” said Mr. Allard.
As governments order new restrictions to contain a resurgence of the virus, specials are being pushed back. A loan earmarked for exhibitions at several museums can get stuck, making it difficult to deliver the promised artwork, he said.
On a small metal cart nearby, the self-portrait of a young Rembrandt, resplendent in a casual black beret, a thick gold necklace, and a confident smile, rested in an ornate oval frame. The 1633 blockbuster was on loan to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but was stuck there for three months due to coronavirus travel restrictions. A few days earlier, he had returned home to the Louvre by truck through the Channel Tunnel connecting Great Britain and France.
Blaise Ducos, chief curator of the Louvre’s collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings, usually accompanies loans to and from their destination, but could only see Rembrandt’s withdrawal via video. He went to Calais to retrieve the masterpiece when it left the Chunnel, and finally supervised its re-hanging in the Rembrandt room of the Louvre.
“We are happy to have him back,” said Ducos.
Nearby, workers climbed a rolling scaffolding to remove a huge Van Dyck painting from Venus asks Vulcan for weapons. Intended for an exhibition in Madrid, the painting traversed the Dutch corridors, passed Vermeer’s astronomer studying an astrolabe, before finding itself stuck in front of a small door in the Rubens Room.
Workers flipped the painting onto its side and slipped it on cushions to the next gallery, where it would then be packed and – pandemic restrictions permitting – sent along the way.
“Covid was a force majeure event,” Mr Allard said, as a Dutch paint duo was hoisted to replace the Van Dyck. “Right now we have so many question marks – it’s hard to know what the situation will be in two, three or four months,” he said.
“But despite Covid, we continue to work as always,” continued Mr. Allard. “We have to be ready to welcome the public again.