Arts: Revamped Louvre dusts off its fusty old image

Sixteen years ago President Francois Mitterrand decreed that the dusty, musty old Palais du Louvre should be opened up to the light and air. Today, President Chirac opens the last stage of a pounds 600m expansion and re-design which makes the Louvre one of the largest, and most modern, art museums in the world.

It has taken 206 years but the ambition of the revolutionaries who evicted the French royal family from the Louvre in 1791 has finally been achieved. From today, the entire, immense, lobster-shaped complex beside the Seine will be opened to the public - an artistic city within a city in the heart of Paris.

More than 10,000 square metres of new exhibition space will be reopened, mostly in the older, eastern part of the Palace, the Sully Wing. The museum's vast collection of Greek, Roman and Egyptian art and artefacts will be displayed fully for the first time, making the Louvre the world's second largest museum of Egyptology.

Apart from a few finishing touches, the internal rebuilding and re-fitting of the Louvre ordered by President Mitterrand in 1981 will be complete.

A new, underground entrance hall, topped by a controversial glass pyramid, was opened in 1989. The artistic colonisation of the northern, Richelieu, wing - occupied by the Ministry of Finance for 170 years - was finished in 1993.

The final stage, also including a restored "long gallery" for Italian and some French 16th- and 17th-century paintings, will be opened by President Jacques Chirac today.

Although hugely expensive, the restoration of the Louvre is already a thumping, public success. Since work began in the mid 1980s, the number of visitors has double to more than 5,000,000 a year. The "old" Louvre was a labyrinth of dusty rooms with cramped and jumbled displays, defended by legendarily grumpy attendants.

The average visit time was scarcely more than an hour (typically spent searching for the Mona Lisa) compared to three hours in comparable museums around the world.

The re-modelled Louvre is larger, more spacious but easier to navigate and has a revolutionary system of indirect, natural lighting, using mirrors and ultra-violet filters to reveal, but protect, the works of art. It also has an underground car-park, lecture-theatre, shopping-centre and several restaurants.

Among the works on display for the first time, will be a restored statue of the Empress Sabina, wife of the Emperor Hadrian (2nd century AD), parts of which were lost at the bottom of the Mediterranean until two years ago. The ship bringing the statue to France, from an archeological dig near Carthage, caught fire and sank off Toulon in 1874. Parts of the statue were recovered but not the head.

A diving team recovered the missing items in 1995 and the rebuilt statue will go on public display from tomorrow, most probably for the first time in nearly 2,000 years. Another of the displays contains a painted wooden sarcophagus of Marcus Antinous, a friend of Hadrian who drowned in the Nile.

The centrepiece of the 30 new rooms devoted to ancient Egyptian artefacts will be an immense stone head of the Pharaoh Amenophis IV. Elsewhere, an almost entire interior of a 4th-century Coptic church - presented to France by the Egyptian government - has been reassembled in a former amphitheatre. It is thought to be the only church-within-a-museum in the world.

The "Great gallery" for 16th and 17th-century paintings, restored to its full 300-metre glory (the length of three football pitches) will include works from the museum "reserve" not displayed before. They include The Annociation by Giorgio Vasari and Camille delivering the school-master to his pupils", by Nicolas Poussin.

The new galleries will be open from today and free to the public on Sunday and Monday from 6pm to 10pm.

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