The rest of our time in Paris was spent mainly at two landmarks– the Louvre and the palace at Versailles. The interesting thing about the Louvre is that it is at the same time a museum and a historical artifact chronicling the history of France. The very oldest parts of the Louvre date back to the 12th century, when it was a fortress. There’s really only one connecting passageway left from that time, and you can walk through it on an elevated platform and see the rough stone walls on all sides.
The building was added to and remodeled many times by various kings over the centuries; it was transformed from a fortress into a dwelling place, and then a palace. With the Renaissance came changes in architecture, and as kings continued to add new sections to the Louvre, the building became a record of architectural history. It was also home to an ever-growing royal collection of works of art, and in the 18th century, kings Louis XV and XVI started using it as an art gallery. It became truly public for the first time during the French Revolution, but that didn’t last long. Napoleon added more sections, as did 19th-century rulers. During World War II, the art had to be cleared out and hidden from the occupying Nazis.
The newest addition to the Louvre was completed in 1989– a pyramid made of many small triangular panes of glass. Visitors enter the museum through the pyramid and take escalators down to the new underground entrance section. Not everybody was sure that the pyramid fit with the centuries-old stone building, but since the Louvre is already a conglomeration of many different styles, I think it makes sense to give modern art a chance to be represented.
Once again, I stuck close to Dr. B., taking pictures of the artifacts he pointed out and keeping track of them with a notepad. I really liked having someone to follow around through the enormous museum rather than simply being told to wander around. It also meant that I got to pay attention to and read about some of the smaller artifacts that most people would walk past because there’s just so much to see. We spend most of our time in the antiquities section of the museum, since we were looking for Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian artifacts. It wasn’t crowded where we were at all.
The funny thing is that I ended up not seeing the work of art that the Louvre is probably most famous for– Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. I wonder how many other people have been to the Louvre but not seen the Mona Lisa! My classmates told me that the Mona Lisa is smaller than most people imagine it, and that it is painted on a piece of wood, not on canvas. It’s amazing how practically every movie and TV show gets these things totally wrong. How many times have you seen a story about art thieves trying to steal the Mona Lisa by tearing it out of its frame and rolling it up? You can’t do that; it’s a piece of wood!
I did see the Venus de Milo (a Greek statue of the goddess Aphrodite), though, which is not bad as famous works of art go. It made me wonder if it was more or less famous because the arms are broken off, and whether the artist would be annoyed that everyone thinks of it as “that statue with the arms broken off.”
Anyway, the other amazing place we got to visit was the palace at Versailles. Versailles is a little over 10 miles southwest of southern Paris– I think we took the subway to get there. It was where the French royalty ruled in luxury for most of the 18th century. During my freshman year, I had read a book for class about Voltaire, Rousseau, and other French philosophers who were part of the Enlightenment movement, and for background it gave an overview of what was going on politically at the time.
I wish I had a better memory of what I read about; as it is, I am sure I have made plenty of mistakes in my recounting of French history. The gist of it, though, is that during the time that the royalty lived at Versailles, the monarchy went from Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” who reigned for 77 years and took the monarchy to the height of its power, to Louis XV, who mishandled the nation’s foreign affairs and wealth while his court became known for decadence, to Louis XVI, who was driven from Versailles and executed by guillotine in the midst of a bloody revolution.
As I toured the palace, I thought about how it used to be that only the nobility and well-connected would have ever gotten the chance to see the things I was seeing. There was room after room of ornate furniture, grand windows, gilded statues, and paintings large enough to cover an entire wall. Some rooms were rich with portrayals of Biblical scenes; others were full of the gods of Greek and Roman mythology. The windows gave you beautiful views of the garden, which went on for acres with hedges and fountains.
As pretty as the palace was, there are a whole lot of things that “common people” in many parts of the world have today that Louis XIV couldn’t have dreamed of. Like air conditioning, for one. Tylenol and aspirin also come to mind. Clean food you can prepare and eat in minutes. Not to mention libraries and the Internet.
The garden outside the palace was the favorite place I visited during my time in France. It was big enough that you could wander around and find places that weren’t crowded; find a bench somewhere in a quiet corner and just look at the beauty of God’s creation. On our day of free time, a few of my classmates and I went to the store to get food (I bought some chicken salad sandwiches) and had a picnic on the grounds of Versailles.
I guess if I had to sum up my impression of France, it would be with that picnic. A place that had been built for royalty only was now open for anybody who wanted to come and enjoy. Freedom is a wonderful blessing.