Down a tunnel and up among glories

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The Independent Online
It's surprising how many people, when you say you've been through the Channel tunnel, ask whether it wasn't a bit frightening, or say they could not do the same. I've never noticed people saying how frightening it was, for instance, to get from K ennedy airport to New York, or from Hong Kong airport to the city centre, both of which journeys might involve a fair amount of time in a tunnel under water.

Still, one can't legislate against phobias. My own phobia, which I never used to have, but which I now see coming along nicely, is for heights. Some months ago I tried, in the pouring rain, to inspect the roof of Milan Cathedral, but at the point where you are obliged to climb up the top edge of the western facade, the imagination took over. I would be picked up, umbrella and all, by a sudden gust, and dumped unceremoniously in the piazza below. A distinguished way to go, perhaps, but not a distinction I was then seeking.

The Channel tunnel, for phobics, takes 20 minutes. Waterloo to the Gare du Nord is a piffling three hours. Everyone in attendance beams with pride, and the passengers are unabashedly excited. It's like getting a train set for Christmas, unwrapping it, climbing inside and buzzing off to Paris.

The whole point of going to Paris is to see those new galleries at the Louvre, a museum I never greatly liked before. Peering through the partitions at one of the not-yet-restored rooms, I remembered why. The place had felt bombastic and old and dusty and pretty well interminable, with vast canvases of what seemed, in those days, incomprehensible hideousness. One associated the Louvre with an attack of "museum feet", and with a battle against the tour groups.

Today the trick is to arrive early, or expect a queue round three sides of the Cour Napoleon. But this queue has its own novelty and charm, including East European teeny-boppers wearing Dead Kennedys badges. What is striking, though, is the way the vast numbers of people, once inside and furnished with tickets, disperse and are never seen again. In the concourse beneath the pyramid you will still be oppressed by crowds. After that, among the works of art, you are at your leisure.

The same trick has been pulled off as in the Musee d'Orsay. The first time I visited that building, it was an old station in which a modern, wooden theatre (that of Jean-Louis Barrault) had, as it were taken shelter. It was fun to find a building within a building, just as it is fun to arrive at the Manchester Corn Exchange and find a capsule theatre erected on the floor where the dealers once dealt. But one could hardly claim that the Barrault theatre was using the old Gare d'Orsay to its fullest extent. It was a temporary convenience, a long-term extravagance.

Barrault was moved to a more appropriate building, and then they took the old Gare d'Orsay by the scruff of its neck, and created a series of new levels and rooms, building them solidly out of beautiful Burgundy stone, and inventing the new spaces in which to house artworks from the period 1848 to 1914. The result was that even more space was put to use than had been when the building housed the station, but the station nevertheless retained its identifiable form.

What they subsequently did to the Louvre was more than that, of course, since they began by excavating an entirely new space under where the pyramid now is. But when they came to the part formerly occupied by the finance ministry, which included two courtyards, they glassed these over and repeated the Musee d'Orsay trick of inventing harmonious new levels in stone.

If the pyramid area is the dispersal point for the entire Louvre, the place where the oppressive crowd vanishes, the Cour Marly and the Cour Puget are the dispersal points for the two halves of the French sculpture collection, the places from which you set out on your chronological trot. And they form quite breath-taking settings for those huge pieces that were originally designed for the open air, for parks and gardens, and which now benefit from the lavish use of honey-coloured stone.

Lavish, of course, in one sense. In another it is quite thrifty to use spaces that always existed but were never incorporated into the museum before. Thrifty to invent a whole new museum in the centre of Paris (for that is what the French sculpture galleries amount to) by the simple expedient of taking a building by the scruff of the neck.

The Louvre is aware of its weaknesses. It knows its collections are not well balanced: it is strong on Italian sculpture, relatively weak on German work, feeble on Spanish and worse still in the British department (if such exists). But that is perhaps what you would expect. It is the French collection that sets the pulse racing, and the French collection one should go primarily to see. The latest galleries to be opened (housing the Italian and Northern collections) are very beautiful, but t hey do not have the architectural panache of the two French courtyards.

One is reminded, when looking at this collection, of the amount of destruction that went on. Here, we grow up familiar with the idea that we simply lost our sculptural heritage in the Reformation, that what survives is exceptional. Less familiar is the idea of the French losses, both in the Reformation period and in the aftermath of the revolution.

It is extraordinary to think that by the late 18th century in England, the ruins of the monasteries were becoming valued for their beauty, while in France they were just about to lay waste their still-functioning monastic establishments, just about to strip the lead off the roofs and knock the heads off the statues.

It has been estimated that, out of the general sum of medieval works of art, only 2 per cent remains to us. And yet how short a period it was, between the revolutionary destruction of art in France and the revival of interest in the Gothic; how short a period between the cloisters being laid waste and their being purchased by Americans for shipment home.

In England, centuries passed between destruction and rehabilitation. In France, it was a matter of decades, but in the areas worst affected the losses were no less great. In England, we retained tombs of the nobility, because they were protected by theirfamilies during the Reformation, and no mobs have desecrated them since. But in France the revolutionary iconoclasm was general. What survived seems to have done so by sheer luck, and the museums and monuments are the repositories of that luck.