National Geographic : 1952 Jun
Paris, Home Town of the World any happier the next day when the Paris papers front-paged the advertising stunt with gleeful emphasis. We ourselves were no strangers to the week day life of the cafes and its passing show. But we tended to reserve Saturdays and Sun day afternoons for the Louvre, that sprawling treasure house of the arts, itself a history in stone (page 794). Philip Augustus, we knew, built the Louvre's first section as a fortress, around 1204. Charles V converted it into his resi dence. Catherine de Medicis, that terror of her day, planned the building of the long gallery paralleling the Seine; she wanted to connect the Louvre with her apartments in the Tuileries. The Louvre: 45 Acres of Masterpieces Louis XIV eventually allowed the building to fall into disrepair, but Louis XV refurbished it. Henry IV, Napoleon I, and Napoleon III ordered important additions which made the Louvre not only one of the largest-it covers some 45 acres-but one of the most beautiful palaces in the world. What hangs upon its walls and stands in its great rooms is, of course, worth far more to civilization than the edifice itself. Nearly any school child knows that it houses the superb Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Venus de Milo (page 771), and Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. But they are only three of its gems. To sample even cursorily its vast col lection of French, Flemish, Italian, Greek, Egyptian, and other masterpieces is a for midable undertaking. The Louvre, indeed, is so enormous and so mazelike that it is no trick at all to lose yourself in its corridors. Someone has cal culated that it would take three hours of fast, nonstop walking merely to glance once in passing at its collection of fine arts through the ages. And yet the same building also houses the Ministry of Finance and the Na tional Lottery! Not the least attraction of the Louvre is the people who frequent it. Parents en thralled by a painting learnedly explain its virtues to 8-year-olds who nod politely and hear nothing at all. Lovers, their fingers inter woven, sit on benches in a happy daze of con templation. A bearded art student hurries in, stares at a Tintoretto, and dashes off to his studio to catch on canvas that elusive color. A source of wonder to numerous art lovers used to be that French salons remained cold for so long toward France's own mas ters of impressionism-Cezanne, Manet, De gas, Monet, and the others. The great collec tions of these artists' works were found out side France, especially in America. In later years, however, the attitude of the Louvre and other French museums changed appreciably in this respect. Midwinter Night in Montmartre My wife and I used to tackle the Louvre with caution, restricting ourselves to a few galleries, or only one, at a time. Even so, we would often emerge limp and esthetically a little numb. It would be pleasant then to take a subway or a bus to Montmartre and its hill crowned by the basilica of the Sacre Coeur. It is a steep climb, through narrow and winding streets, but in winter a lovely one. Snow, falling softly over the chimney pots of Paris, masks the harsh lines of cornice and gable, smooths the stern symmetry of classical facades. Tourists tend to identify Montmartre with the Place Pigalle and its bawdy night clubs and well-publicized "dens of iniquity." But there is a gentler side to the hill, typified by the Place du Tertre. Around this tiny square cluster some of the oldest and most picturesque buildings in all Paris, preserved as if under glass. A restau rant, Chez la Mere Catherine, occupies one site, and a famous art shop another: Au Singe Qui Lit (The Monkey Who Reads). In summer the Place takes on the atmos phere of a village square at carnival time. But on a winter evening it is quiet, almost deserted. The half-timbered houses huddle together for warmth. The door to a cabaret swings open, flicking a bar of light across the snow; from the rooms behind float laughter and the scrape of a violin. The door closes, and the square is silent again, hushed as if waiting to see if it is the brawling poet of the Middle Ages, Francois Villon, who has emerged. Central Markets at Midnight Many a man who has toured the cabarets of Montmartre has wound up at midnight, as I have, at Les Halles, the Central Markets of Paris (page 786). There are two sobering things to be found here. One is the realization that farmers have been sending their produce to this spot for at least 800 years, centuries before Columbus left his cradle; the other is onion soup. My favorite place to obtain the soup is the Pere Tranquille, a restaurant whose concoc tion is noted for its restorative power. In its rich beef stock float paper-thin rings of deli cately cooked onions and chunks of French bread, sprinkled generously with grated cheese. As a second course, one can pick up from neighboring stalls cornucopias of French fried potatoes just out of their sizzling bath golden and crisp.