Museum Legitimacy & Commercial Legitimacy

Mysterious in effect, the Louvre is delightfully mysterious in history, too. Illustration by Vincent Mahé

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If you favor essayists, you read essays on topics far afield, as well as more familiar topics like this one, at least as much for the quality of writing as for the topic. You can hear (click above), or read (below) this as a book review, but as in any well-crafted essay there are also ideas–in this case much more broadly related to art and relics and museums–that go beyond the title subject. My favorite two-liner, about half way through this essay, caused me to pause and smile:

The Parthenon Marbles are part of a still existent if damaged architectural whole, and the splendor of the Acropolis Museum is that it looks directly out on the original site. They ought to be returned.

I happen to agree. Others may not. But the essayist makes clear how this statement relates to other examples of plundering that would not be considered acceptable by most people today, as well as plundering that we have somehow come to accept as part of being civilized. Legitimacy is a key point in this essay, which makes it all the more frustrating when the online publication of the essay directs you to the most monopolistic option of where to buy the book being reviewed:

…Mysterious in effect, the Louvre is delightfully mysterious in history, too, as James Gardner shows in “The Louvre: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum” (Atlantic Monthly Press). No one knows why the Louvre is called the Louvre. You would think that it has some relation to “Lutetia,” the Roman name for Paris, or the like, but not a bit; the origin of the name is as opaque as the French love of Johnny Hallyday. Even so, the name has stuck through the site’s transition from citadel to showplace. The continuity the Louvre represents is the continuity of the French state. Gardner relates the long story of the Louvre, starting around the thirteenth century, when it was simply a castle, through its elevation as a palace, and then, in the seventeenth century, its expansion into service as an office building for French royalty. In those centuries, the building intersects art history only occasionally. A kind of false spring occurred when François I seems to have bought pictures from Leonardo at Amboise, in the early sixteenth century—three paintings, including that smiling lady, which remain the nucleus of the collection. It was a cosmopolitan collection—the French King, like many of his successors, displayed his power by demonstrating his taste, with the model of collecting as a form of exotic shopping already in place.

Pictures were also commissioned and displayed there. Peter Paul Rubens’s seventeenth-century series apotheosizing the life of the mediocre Marie de Médicis as the Queen of France migrated into the royal collection early on, and remains both the apogee and the burlesque of major art that is also pure toadying to power. In the late seventeenth century, Louis XIV bought a tremendous number of pictures, but, as Gardner rightly says, he bought as a contemporary New York billionaire would buy, acquiring blue-chip names—then mostly Italian—without much evidence of distinct sensibility. Still, one great picture after another did come into his personal collection for the benefit of France, including what is, for some people’s money, the single greatest picture in the Louvre, that Raphael portrait of the Italian diplomat and author Castiglione. Raphael, the most talented painter who has ever lived, somehow compressed in a single frame all of the easy painterliness and understated humanity of Titian, while fixing, in Castiglione’s mixture of wisdom, intensity, sobriety, and wry good humor, the permanent form for the ideal author photo.

Gardner’s muscular, impatiently expert prose recalls Robert Hughes in his city books, “Barcelona” and “Rome.”…

Read the entire essay here.

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