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Unlocking the Louvre’s secrets

Times Staff Writer

WHEN “The Da Vinci Code” opens Friday in the U.S., one of the first places moviegoers will see is the Louvre, where the story starts. Director Ron Howard was allowed to film in the museum, so moviegoers will see the real thing: architect I.M. Pei’s Pyramid, the 1,450-foot Grande Galerie and the Salle des Etats where Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” hangs.

For some viewers, scenes shot there will fly by, but lovers of the Louvre may pause between handfuls of popcorn to admire the museum in the heart of Paris that saw record-breaking numbers of visitors last year.

Since the filming there last spring, the museum has distanced itself from the movie, reflecting the French art establishment’s well-known scorn for popular culture and the Louvre’s weariness with the phenomenon created by “The Da Vinci Code,” Dan Brown’s controversial 2003 mystery about the supposed secret history of Christianity. Officials at the museum aren’t publicly linking the dramatic increase in visitation -- from about 6 million in 2000 to 7.5 million last year -- with the novel, even though 57 million copies of the book are in print in 44 languages.

After all, the Louvre is not a movie set. It is a world-famous art gallery and museum of mankind in the surpassingly beautiful abode of French kings, like London’s National Gallery, British Museum and Buckingham Palace all rolled into one.

The Louvre has been standing alongside the Seine for more than 800 years, first as a medieval fortress built around 1190 by crusading king Philippe Auguste (Philip II) and then as a rambling royal palace on which a long chain of French artists and architects put their marks. The kings of France were insatiable collectors, so when the palace opened as a museum in 1793, the treasure-trove became the property of the French people.

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After the French Revolution, art kept rolling in, acquired through donations, pilferage during the Napoleonic Wars, field work by French archeologists and a now-defunct law that allowed curators to bargain-shop in customs-office basements for artwork barred from exportation.

The Louvre has 300,000 works of art spanning almost 9,000 years of human civilization, including 52 Rubens, 12 Rembrandts and, thanks to the connoisseurship of Francis I in the 16th century, more Da Vincis than Italy (or anyplace else).

“The Louvre is the book in which we learn to reach,” French painter Paul Cezanne wrote in a 1905 letter.

The museum today

NOW, there is even more to the museum, largely because of a huge project launched in 1981 by then-French President Francois Mitterrand. The Grand Louvre, as it is called, put a modern glass pyramid designed by American architect Pei at the center of the classically French building ensemble; doubled exhibition space by opening the northern wing, formerly occupied by the French Finance Ministry; and gave the complex a subterranean shopping mall.

When the $960-million Grand Louvre was first announced, the French protested. It was too expensive and ambitious. Critics scoffed at Pei’s pyramid, and journalists dubbed Mitterrand “Ramses II” for the Pharaoh whose building lust is documented in the museum’s Egyptian wing.

But the complaints subsided when the Grand Louvre reached completion around 2000. With a new entrance in the middle of the Cour Napoleon, the museum seemed far more user-friendly and Pei’s controversial pyramid became a beloved landmark.

The next remarkable thing was the naming of an energetic, open-minded director in 2001. Henri Loyrette was 48 when he took over at the Louvre after running the nearby Musee d’Orsay.

Although saddled with problems pointed out by an embarrassing 2003 government auditor’s report -- insufficient security, staff laxness and mismanagement of the collections -- Loyrette managed to turn things around. Under his stewardship, the Louvre launched an Islamic Arts Department to be housed in a $60-million glass-roofed courtyard, scheduled for completion in 2009, and supported the creation of a satellite museum in the economically depressed northeastern French city of Metz.

Recent restorations of the dazzling 17th century Galerie d’Apollon and Salle des Etats, home of “The Mona Lisa,” were greeted with jubilation. But among jealous guardians of the national patrimony and opponents of privatization, there was also consternation because the projects were paid for by the French oil company Total and by the Nippon Television Network.

Unlike past directors, Loyrette has aggressively sought funding from private sources to augment the museum’s resources. In April, he announced the formation of a partnership between the Louvre and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Between 2006 and 2009, the Louvre will lend the High enough art for three special exhibitions, including masterpieces by Raphael and Nicolas Poussin.

Meanwhile, U.S. sponsors of the exhibitions -- including Delta, UPS and Coca-Cola -- have pledged $6.4 million for refurbishments to the Louvre’s collection of 18th century French furniture.

In 2002, Loyrette welcomed the founding of the American Friends of the Louvre, a New York-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to support the museum financially, strengthen French-American cultural ties and improve how the museum addresses the needs of visitors from the U.S. Its current initiatives include English translations of the museum’s Web database and installation of panels describing key artworks in English and Spanish.

The society is a new concept at the Louvre, although a similar group has long been active at Versailles. “It never occurred to the Louvre before, but Loyrette is shaking things up,” said Christopher Forbes, head of the board of directors of the American Friends of the Louvre. “He represents a new generation of directors, plugged into what’s happening at museums worldwide.”

Loyrette has been frank about the Louvre’s weaknesses, including its lack of American art. That will be remedied in part when “American Artists and the Louvre” opens in June. The special exhibition will present 30 American masterpieces by artists who found inspiration at the Paris museum, including Benjamin West, James McNeill Whistler and Edward Hopper.

It’s beginning to sound like America year at the Louvre. Despite strained relations between America and France, a million people from the U.S. visited the museum last year, more than from any other country besides France. Projects with Atlanta’s High Museum and the American Friends of the Louvre were partly motivated by a desire to ease contentiousness between the two nations.

Loyrette has also said that his goal is to make visiting the museum more enjoyable. For Americans, especially those visiting for the first time, that may be the most significant of all the director’s projects.

With more than 20,000 visitors tramping through the Louvre each day, congestion and the frustration it engenders are almost unavoidable. On a busy morning, the museum is as noisy and crowded as a U.S. airport the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Although I live four blocks from the museum, I avoided it for months after I moved to Paris in 2004. But I was pleasantly surprised after returning several times last month. There are more ticket machines, crowd control around “The Mona Lisa” has improved, and three other entrances besides the one at the Pyramid have opened (with plans for another underway).

Directional signs and art descriptions for non-French speakers are still lacking, but most staff members speak at least a little English and seem friendlier than when I first visited 20 years ago.

A day pass costs about $10 (coincidentally the price of a movie ticket), although students get in free. Opening hours have been extended, including Wednesday and Friday evenings, when the crowds thin and the din subsides.

Your visit

BUT no matter when you go, it is possible to find yourself suddenly alone in front of the Egyptian Department’s 4,500-year-old “Seated Scribe” or climbing the sumptuous Lefuel staircase in the Richelieu wing as only your footsteps break the silence.

The best way to get the most out of a trip to the Louvre is to go with a clear sense of what you plan to accomplish. Most visitors want to see the museum’s great masterpieces -- the “Mona Lisa,” “Winged Victory of Samothrace” and the “Venus de Milo” -- which takes about three hours, allowing time for distraction. Others choose to get to know just one of the Louvre’s eight departments in depth, a far less exhausting and potentially more rewarding approach.

First, though, take an hour to stroll all the way around the exquisite building ensemble. Gaze at the Grande Galerie overlooking the Seine, a perfect Paris postcard; stand back and admire the magisterial Renaissance colonnade on the museum’s eastern facade; cross the Cour Carree, considered the most perfect architectural space in the Louvre; look west from the Cour Napoleon toward the Tuileries Gardens, the Place de la Concorde, the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe; see the building’s facade reflected on Pei’s glass pyramid.

Then tell me the Louvre is just a movie set.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Upcoming special exhibitions

Exhibition - “From Cordoba to Samarkand”; Dates - Through June 26; Details - Fifty masterpieces from the soon-to-open Museum of Islamic Arts in Doha, Qatar, representing the artistry of the Muslim world from the 7th century to the end of the 19th century.

Exhibition - “Hubert Robert 1733-1808"; Dates - June 1 - Oct. 16; Details - Drawings by the 18th century French artist, museum curator and visionary

Exhibition - “Francois-Marius Granet 1775-1849"; Dates - June 1- Sept. 11; Details - Watercolors and drawings by the Louvre curator and student of Jacques-Louis David

Exhibition - “American Artists and the Louvre”; Dates - June 14 - Sept. 18; Details - The museum’s first exhibition devoted to U.S. artists, including 30 works by painters from Benjamin West to Edward Hopper who visited and were inspired by the Louvre

Exhibition - Mike Kelley; Dates - June 14 - Sept. 18; Details - A multimedia installation by a contemporary American artist, musician and critic, conceived especially for the Louvre

Exhibition - “Jeweled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals”; Dates - July 6 - Sept. 4; Details - Jewelry and objets d’art from the princely courts of India during the Mughal Empire

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Fantastique voyage

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, nonstop service to Paris is offered on Air France and Air Tahiti Nui and connecting service (change of plane) is offered on Continental, Northwest, American, Lufthansa, Delta and British. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $680 until May 25, then increase to $1,090 for the summer.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 33 (country code for France), 1 (city code for Paris) and the local number.

THE MUSEUM:

The Louvre, 40-20-50-50, www.louvre.fr, is accessible by bus and Metro (Lines 1 and 7, Palais-Royal/Musee du Louvre stop). The main museum entrance is at the Pyramid in the Cour Napoleon.

Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays; 9 a.m.-9:45 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays. Closed: Tuesdays; Aug. 16, May 1, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1.

Tickets: General admission $10; combined ticket for general admission and special exhibitions $15.50; general admission after 6 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays $7; younger than 18 free; younger than 26 free after 6 p.m. Fridays; first Sunday of every month free.

Advance purchase tickets: Available on the Louvre website (above) and at certain Paris stores, including FNAC and Virgin Megastores.

Tours: Tours in English covering the museum’s masterpieces last 90 minutes and are offered at 11 a.m. and 2 and 3:45 p.m. (also at 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. in July and August); $7, not including general admission.

Audio guides: Audio tours in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Japanese are available to rent at the entrances to the Sully, Richelieu and Denon wings; 1,000 works of art are covered in 40 hours of tape; $6.

Programs: The Louvre auditorium under the Pyramid offers a yearlong schedule of concert, lectures and films; for information, consult the Louvre website (above).

Paris Museums Pass, 44-61-96-60, www.parismuseumpass.fr, provides multiple entries, with no standing in line, at 60 museums and monuments in and around Paris, including the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and Chateau de Versailles; two-day pass is $36, four-day is $54, six-day is $72 (must be used on consecutive days); available at Paris and Ile de France tourist offices, including those in the Carrousel du Louvre and at 25 Rue des Pyramides, and at major museums and monuments.

RATP passes that include use of the Metro and bus, entrance to the Louvre and a 10% discount at museum restaurants are available for $15 a day and can be purchased at the Paris tourist information center, 25 Rue des Pyramides, and at some train stations, including Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon.

WHERE TO STAY:

Hotel du Quai Voltaire, 19 Quai Voltaire; 42-61-50-91, www.quaivoltaire.fr. The hotel overlooks the Seine and south side of the Louvre; rooms are somewhat tired and frumpy, but the management is friendly. Doubles from $145.

Le Relais du Louvre, 19 Rue des Pretres St. Germain l’Auxerrois; 40-41-96-42, www.relaisdulouvre.com. A charming 21-room hotel on the east side of the Louvre, in the shadow of the Church of St. Germain l’Auxerrois. Doubles from $180.

Hotel Regina, Place des Pyramides, 42-60-31-10, www.regina-hotel.com, an elegant enclave that opened in 1903 on the Rue de Rivoli. It has a peaceful courtyard restaurant, leathery bar and high-ceilinged chambers. Doubles $486.

Hotel du Louvre, Place Andre Malraux, 44-58-38-38, www.hoteldulouvre.com, is an old-world-style hotel near the Palais Royal and Pyramid entrance to the museum. Doubles $545.

WHERE TO EAT:

In the Louvre: There are cafes for light meals and snacks throughout the museum: Cafe du Louvre, under the Pyramid near the self-service ticket machines; Pyramid cafes on the lower ground floor; the Denon wing’s Cafe Mollien, with pleasant terrace seating in summer, and quieter Cafe Denon, among the antiquities on the lower ground floor; and Cafe Richelieu on the first floor of the Richelieu wing, in a series of high-ceilinged rooms and terraces overlooking the Cour Napoleon.

In the Carrousel du Louvre: Universal Resto, the food court on the second floor of the mall under the Carrousel du Louvre, offers 13 cuisines, including sushi, tapas, pasta and pizza, hamburgers and fries, for about $10 a meal. It’s convenient and fast, but the atmosphere is jangling and the food marginal by Paris standards, with the possible exceptions of Charlie the Chicken and Douce France.

Ragueneau Patisserie du Louvre, next door to the food court, is a much more tranquil tea room with prix fixe lunches for $19 and $24.

La Cafeteria, on the lower ground floor near the entrance to the Richelieu wing, can be crowded and noisy; it serves salads, sandwiches, pizza and hot plates (about $15).

Cafe Marly, on the north side of the Cour Napoleon, 49-26-06-60, is accessible without entering the museum and open 8 a.m.-2 a.m. daily; the decor is sumptuous and the portions are large, but the food is uninspired. About $35 for an entree and dessert.

Le Grand Louvre, under the Pyramid, 40-20-53-41, is a handsome contemporary restaurant, offering sophisticated French fare such as foie gras and saddle of rabbit; about $50 for three courses, not including wine.

Near the Louvre: Restaurant le Voltaire, 27 Quai Voltaire, 42-61-17-49, across the river from the museum, has a small, wood-lined cafe that’s open for lunch and serves classic French fare as well as delicious homemade desserts; entree specials on the menu such as blanquette de veau and poached salmon come with seasonal vegetables and are about $15.

Le Dauphin, 167 Rue St. Honore, 42-60-40-11, near the Passage Richelieu, offers bistro standards such as cassoulet; prix fixe lunches $23 and $30; dinner entrees $20 to $30; prime rib for two $60.

Cador Confiseur, 2 Rue de l’Admiral de Coligny, 45-08-19-18, is a chocolate and pastry shop on the east side of the Louvre; it serves sandwiches, tarts, salads and desserts; light meals about $10.

WHERE TO SHOP:

The Carrousel du Louvre (see graphic) has a Virgin Megastore, Esprit and other gift and souvenir shops; open daily.

The museum stores are along the corridor at the south side of the underground mall, including separate shops for children’s books and toys, paper goods (posters, calendars, postcards) and statuary; the main book and gift shop is underneath the Pyramid, on two levels, with separate rooms for Egyptian items and high-quality prints. The Garden Bookstore, another branch of the museum shops, is at the west end of the Tuileries near the Place de la Concorde.

TO LEARN MORE:

French Government Tourist Office, (514) 288-1904, www.franceguide.com.

Ile de France Tourist Office, inside the Carrousel du Louvre mall, 44-50-19-98, www.pidf.com.

-- Susan Spano


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