What happens when we try to walk at night through museums we can no longer visit? A range of online virtual tours provides the possibility, but apart from physical problems of reproduction—the pixel resolution is inadequate, the movement glitchy and twitchy—the real difference is the loss of tactile and optical tension, the missing dialogue of aching feet and happy eyes. Online, we float, ghostlike, down corridors, making giddy hundred-and-eighty-degree spins, with no querulous photographer from Toledo with a selfie stick to bump into. Sit and know you’re sitting is the meditation master’s insistence, and Walk and look while knowing you’re walking and looking is the more complicated Zen of the museum experience: the physical and the painterly, the squinting to see and the moments of transporting vision, have to go in tandem. The work is there, actually there as a physical fact, which you could touch, if you were allowed to. A book may be an object, but the Kindle edition of “Hamlet” is as much Hamlet as the (no longer extant) manuscript. Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione exists at one specific point on the planet, and nowhere else, having begun in one nameable place and followed a track through time, owner by owner and wall to wall. Reproductions reproduce, and they often do it well, but they can’t reproduce the sex appeal of museumgoing, the carnal intersection of one physical object with another, you and it. It’s a thing, there; you, a thing, here.
This truth is never so piercingly felt as when we think about revisiting in our minds the Louvre in Paris, since its essential experience is enormity and intimacy, constantly colliding, on a scale unequalled by any other gallery in the world. Closed for four months during the pandemic, the Louvre reopened recently, in a cautious, by-appointment-only manner; but, like most of the great galleries of Europe, it remains off limits to still-tainted Americans. As Mark Twain, the archetypal exhausted American tourist, noted when he visited in the eighteen-sixties, the museum contains “miles of paintings by the old masters,” but the experience of its Grande Galerie—a corridor, not a room—is necessarily closeup. Even the large and little rooms that spring off its sides hold out the possibility of an intimate encounter with the past. You look—well, you would look, if you could get within thirty feet of it, past the bulwark of tourists for whom it is the destination of a European visit—at the gallery’s most famous picture, Leonardo’s “La Gioconda” (the one called, in English, the “Mona Lisa”), and you see paint, crackle, a smile, a non-smile, a mystery, a woman, a remembered page of prose (“She is older than the rocks among which she sits”), and, if you allow proximity to defeat familiarity, a genuinely weird, extraterrestrial portrait. Had Leonardo come from another planet, as he sometimes seems to have, this would be a picture of its geology, its flora, and its queen.