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July 5, 2020

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‘Mona Lisa’ back to grindstone as Louvre reopens

THE “Mona Lisa” found herself all alone. The coronavirus pandemic had emptied her room at the Louvre Museum of its usual throngs of admirers.

In a silence worthy of a cathedral, she gazed undisturbed at the huge canvas on the opposite wall, “The Wedding Feast at Cana,” that shows Christ surrounded by 130 feast-goers, painted centuries before social distancing became a thing.

But now the world’s most famous portrait must go back to the grindstone after four months of virus-imposed inactivity.

Even with that famously enigmatic smile, the job of luring back crowds to the world’s most-visited museum promises to be tough.

Before mass tourism came to a screeching halt due to the pandemic, the Louvre drew 30,000 to 50,000 visitors per day during the busy summer season. When it reopens tomorrow, attendance will likely pale by comparison.

“If we get 10,000 per day, I’d be very surprised,” said museum director Jean-Luc Martinez.

As such, for those who can manage a trip to Paris, a golden opportunity for a rare, crowd-free run of the Louvre’s giant galleries and vast marble staircases awaits — and maybe even some uninterrupted face time with Mona Lisa herself.

About 70 percent of the giant museum — 45,000 square meters — will open, housing 30,000 pieces of the Louvre’s vast treasure trove, a more than sufficient quantity to give visitors aching feet.

For Louvre employees who have kept the suddenly empty building and its treasures safe during the city’s lockdown, reopening marks the end of their other-worldly experience of having the former royal palace all to themselves.

“It was quite magical,” said Leila Cherif-Hadria, who had never seen the museum so empty in her 20 years of working there. “A moment suspended in time. It was very pleasant. We didn’t see any ghosts. But we were alone for a long time without any sounds. It was quite peculiar, destabilizing, unknown for us. We knew we were experiencing something unique and which, I hope, will never be repeated but which we savored.”

The loss of ticket and souvenir sales and other income due to the lockdown punched a 40-million-euro (US$45 million) hole in the museum’s revenues. Martinez isn’t sure when visitor numbers will recover. Almost three-quarters of the Louvre’s 9.6 million visitors last year came from abroad, many of them from countries, led by the United States and China, that have been cut off from the European Union during the pandemic.

Visitor numbers also plunged — by 40 percent — after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and “took three years to come back,” Martinez said.

So over to you, Mona Lisa. No longer the “cold and lonely, lovely work of art” that Nat King Cole sang about, she is counted on to work her alluring magic now that the lockdown in France has passed.

On average, Martinez said visitors typically spend 54 seconds gazing at Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy silk merchant in Florence, Italy, in the 16th century — far longer than for other works.

Her fans will be kept apart by dots on the floor as they wait in line for an audience — if there is a line, that is.



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