PARIS – The “Mona Lisa” found herself all alone. The coronavirus had emptied her room at the Louvre Museum of its usual throngs of admirers.
In a silence worthy of a cathedral, she could gaze 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, sigh, 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 with the coronavirus pandemic, the Louvre drew 30,000 to 50,000 visitors per day in the busy summer season. But when it reopens July 6, the museum director expects those numbers to shrivel.
“If we get 10,000 per day, I'd be very surprised," says Jean-Luc Martinez.
Which means, 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 and maybe even some uninterrupted face-time with “Mona Lisa” herself.
About 70% of the giant museum — 45,000 square meters (484,000 square feet) of space, or the equivalent of 230 tennis courts — will be open, housing 30,000 of the Louvre's vast trove of works. Plenty to give visitors aching feet.
For Louvre employees who during lockdown kept the suddenly empty building and its treasures safe under lock and key, 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 lockdown loss of ticket and souvenir sales and other income punched a 40 million euro ($45 million) hole in the museum's revenues. Martinez, the museum director, can't say when visitor numbers might 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 since been cut off from the European Union during the pandemic.
Visitor numbers also plunged, by 40%, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and “took three years to come back,” Martinez noted.
So over to you, “Mona Lisa.” No longer the “cold and lonely lovely work of art” that Nat King Cole sang about, she is being counted on to work her alluring magic now that lockdown is over in France.
The Louvre says visitors typically spend 54 seconds on average — far more than for other works — gazing at Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy silk merchant in Florence, Italy, in the 16th century. (The Renaissance genius never finished the work, lugging it around with him, including on his final trip in 1516 to France, where King Francois I bought it).
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. Signs remind dawdlers that "Mona Lisa has a great many admirers. Please remember to keep your visit short and sweet to give everyone the chance to meet her.”
Museum-goers will need to reserve a time slot for their visit, which can be done online. About 400-500 visitors will be allowed into the Louvre every half-hour. Inside, the museum is also regulating visitor flows with signs that read “sense of visit" in English, a somewhat strange translation but all part of efforts to stop people getting too close while the coronavirus still circulates and takes lives.
Masks will be obligatory for all visitors from age 11.
But not, of course, for the “Mona Lisa.”