It is hard to write a review of the Louvre in Paris, because it is one of the world’s largest museums. There are many departments, and each one of them might, in its field, have been a museum of the first order. For example, it is hard to find another Egyptological museum in Europa that equals the Louvre.
The museum also has a reputation for interesting expositions – one on Meroe and one on the archaeology of Saudi Arabia during my latest visit – and one ought to visit the Louvre twice a year to keep in touch. The people of Paris are unusually blessed.
If you visit the museum for the first time, you will be surprised by the pyramid-shaped entrance. Use the time you lose to pass the bomb check and buy a ticket to look at it, because it is a monument of the first order.
I already mentioned the Egyptian department, where you can easily spend a full day. There are portraits of the Egyptian kings and objects from daily life, and what is even better: the full history is dealth with, so you will also find objects from the first millennium BCE. The Greek, Roman, and Coptic age are not ignored either, although you need to go to Greek department for the royal portraits of the Ptolemies.
The Egyptian department is deservedly famous, and attracts many visitors, who are usually exhausted when they are half-way their tour. Usually, they will take the shortest route to the exit, which brings them through the departments of Cypriote, Arabian, Palmyrene, and Phoenician art – which are, as a consequence, full of people who are not interested in the objects. That is pity, because these rooms alone justify a trip to Paris. Still, if you manage to ignore the crowd of tired visitors to the Egyptian department, you will certainly enjoy coffins from Sidon, Byblus, and Carthage, Nabataean inscriptions, and statues from Cyprus. One of my favorites is a relief of one of the divine triad of Palmyra. You will need half a day to study it well.
Next to it is the Oriental department. The most famous object is, of course, the Code of Hammurabi. Don’t concentrate on the diorite monolith only, but also look in the small display in the same room, because there you will see cuneiform tablets with the same text – one of them written more than a millennium later and proving that these laws had become some kind of Mesopotamian classic, and it is probably no coincidence that the division of these Old Babylonian laws returns in the Ten Commandments.
The Code of Hammurabi was found in Susa, which is a prominent part of the oriental collection. You will also see a wall decorated with Achaemenid soldiers and cuneiform tablets from this Iranian town. Other important excavations are Mari and Khorsabad, but there is a lot more to see. There are also rooms devoted to Jordan and western Syria; they are not adjacent to the eastern Syria and the other Levantine rooms, which is a bit impractical – but the Mesha stela is worth the detour. You need a full day to study the entire oriental department.
The Roman department is surprisingly small. Yet, there is a lot of fine sculpture, including a nice series of portraits of Roman rulers – including the emperor Inconnus about whom I already blogged. Next to it is a comparatively small Etruscan department. A galery of rather mediocre statues brings you to the room devoted to Roman art that was later restored, which is great fun: usually, you can immediately see which part is ancient and which is an addition. (Here, you will also find Canova’s famous Amor and Psyche.) You need about half a day to see it all, read the explanatory signs, and take your photos.
The Greek department is larger – you again need a full day to study it all. The two most famous pieces are the expressive Nike of Samothrake and the famous Venus of Milo. The latter is more or less the museum’s raison d’être. Napoleon had looted the Italian museums, but after he had found his Waterloo, all those works of art had to be returned. In an age in which it was believed that inspiration by great art created great minds, and that Greek art was the most inspirational, the emptying of the Louvre was believed to be a national disaster, but fortunately, the Venus of Milo was found. Now, France could compete again with the British, who had the Elgin Marbles. That the armless deity was a Hellenistic and not a Classical statue, was ignored – the inscription which proves it, is now conveniently lost.
The Greek department also has some fine temple remains (from a/o Assos), the Tanagra statuettes that I increasingly love, and lots of pottery. Unfortunately, the rooms with Greek ceramics have rcently been closed. I haven’t seen the Croesus to the left for quite some time: last time, the room was closed to install better protection; before that, it was on loan to another museum.
The crowds are very large, and you may count yourself lucky that I did not bring you to the paintings. This makes a visit to the Louvre a bit difficult, and you must prepare yourself well; fortunately, the museum’s website is excellent. Four days is the minimum for the ancient departments.
Finally, I must mention one little gem that is often ignored and where you can, consequently, quietly look at the objects: the room with metal objects. There is some fine silver work, but you will also see the helmet of a gladiator, a nice statuette of the Tyche of Antioch, the head of Demetrius Poliorcetes, a hoplite’s panoply, a curse tablet from the Crimea, Roman military diploma’s, and so on.
But unfortunately, that’s the only part of the museum where you will not meet many other people. In fact, the museum is too big, and I think that it would be wiser to split it into smaller museums.