Backstage At The Louvre

Andre Le Prat, a member of the Louvre drawings department, unrolls a sketch that has not been seen for centuries, in the museum's drawing restoration workshop, on April 4, 2006. The Louvre has 120,000 drawings, including many that have never been opened simply because there are too many to restore. (AP Photo Jacques Brinon)
AP Photo/Jacques Brinon
The iron gates creak open in the morning darkness, when the streets are still quiet and bird calls echo nearby in the Tuileries Gardens. The first of the cleaning crews flash their badges, enter the centuries-old building, flick on the lights.

It's 6:40 a.m. The sun rises over Paris and the world's most famous art museum.

Every day, 2,000 staffers pass through the gates into a complex that consumes enough electricity for a town of 4,500. Beneath the Louvre is a network of tunnels where workers navigate in motorized carts. Out of sight is the Louvre's own fire department.

Once a royal palace complete with dungeon and moat, the Louvre had a record 7.55 million visitors last year, more than any art museum in the world. It's bracing for more once the film version of "The Da Vinci Code" premieres May 17. The movie features scenes shot in the Louvre's own galleries.

The twisting plot launches when the Louvre's curator is found dead and naked in the museum, a five-pointed star drawn on his chest in his own blood. Dan Brown's best-selling novel transformed the venerable museum into a pop culture phenomenon in just a few fast-paced pages.

Yet the Louvre doesn't really need help from fiction to be fascinating: It already has its own unusual characters and scenes. Spend a day here and you might meet a naughty-minded tour guide versed in the erotic secrets of sculpture. Or a man with magical hands, who restores drawings left untouched for centuries.

Take an hour to watch the crowds who gaze upon the Mona Lisa - better people-watching than at any Paris sidewalk cafe.

Come. The Louvre beckons ...

8:55 a.m. Under The Glass Pyramid.

In a darkened room, a dozen people quietly come together to learn the secrets of Mesopotamian fertility goddesses.

It's the Louvre's help desk staff getting a PowerPoint art history lesson before they meet and greet the hordes.

All day long, says internal communications manager Jan Sekal, they will answer two classic questions: "Where's the Mona Lisa?" "Where are the toilets?"

10 a.m.: Atop The Pyramid.

A plodding, beetlelike robot scales I.M. Pei's modernist pyramid, then eases down again. Slowly. Until two years ago, sure-footed climbers cleaned the 72-foot pyramid. Now a one-of-a-kind robot has the job.

Michel Jocou, who mans the remote control, spends two full days on the task — half a day for each side of the pyramid, now so emblematic of the Louvre that it's hard to believe it caused a public outcry when it was unveiled in 1988. When the sun glints off the glass, the effect is dazzling, dizzying.

Jocou has never counted the number of panes. He takes it on faith that there are 666, like Dan Brown says.

11 a.m.: In A Hidden Workshop.

Backstage at the Louvre, there are no chandeliers, no Greek vases, no tapestries. The carpet is buckling and stained, the walls are concrete and the hallways are cramped.

The museum's drawing restoration workshop is as bare-bones as an operating room, with huge tables and a sink for scrubbing down. Here, Andre Le Prat unrolls sketches that haven't been seen for centuries, washes them and lovingly lifts off stains.

The Louvre has 120,000 drawings alone. There are rolls and rolls of giant drawings that have never been opened, simply because there are too many to restore. Some are fragile, even in tatters.

It seems it would be easy to make a mistake. Has he ever? "No," the master gasps, throwing up his hands in alarm. "I'm safe."

312 p.m.: In The "Mona Lisa" Chamber.

Leonardo Da Vinci's fair lady gazes at the crowd from behind a pane of unbreakable glass. She smiles — sort of — perhaps half-flattered by the attention and half-annoyed that people are taking photos. A sign clearly warns that it's forbidden.

Japanese television station NTV donated funds for her new chamber that opened last year, with air conditioning, better lighting — and, of course, more room to gape.

Earlene Person, a nurse from San Leandro, Calif., peers at the masterpiece from under a chic red cloche hat. "She's looking right into your eyes, and she sees through you."

A tousle-haired Italian, 7-year-old, Lorenzo Ciaramella, stands enraptured for a full five minutes, oblivious to the stampede of tourists, the babel of tongues, the electronic beeps and fuzz of guards' walkie-talkies.

Lorenzo's verdict: "I like her. She's very quiet, very relaxed."

2:30 p.m.: In The Gallery Of Sensual Maidens.

Tour guide Jean-Manuel Traimond loves what he calls the "naughty bits" in great art. The sensual rump of a maiden who, seen from another angle, turns out to be the gender-bending god Hermaphroditus — a mighty faun statue who lost his manhood, then suffered the indignity of having a tiny replacement attached.

2Traimond found he couldn't keep his dirty thoughts to himself. Thus his "Naughty Louvre Tour" was born.

"Strangely enough, so far most of my clients for the naughty tour have been ladies," he says.

Traimond also has non-kinky itineraries. He recently showed around a group of screenwriters interested in symbolism.

3:30 p.m.: In The Food Court.

Museum guard Johann Grimm tells a tale of tourists behaving badly. Among the legions with blistering feet, he says, some people inevitably sprawl out on the cool marble floor and peel off stinky socks and shoes. Others even stretch out as if to nap — and this in a country that prizes decorum. Even the grass is off-limits in most public parks.

"The first time I saw it, I couldn't believe it," says Grimm, a 20-year-old amateur photographer. "But now it's happened so many times I can't count them."

Other guards and guides tell their own tales. A Tupperware picnic among the Caravaggios. Sleepy tourists testing the mattress on Charles X's velvet-draped canopy bed. People trying to climb onto the "Winged Victory of Samothrace" — a statue already missing its head.

Where fact ends and myth begins, few know. The Louvre refuses to give details on its security. There have been thefts: In 1998, a landscape by French painter Camille Corot was stolen. And, of course, there was the famous 1911 heist of "Mona Lisa" herself, by an Italian house painter. He was caught two years later when he tried to sell it.

7 p.m.: Inside The Puget Sculpture Atrium.

The marble gods and goddesses here once graced chateau gardens of the 18th and 19th centuries. You can almost hear the trickle of fountains, the light laughter of parties, a string quartet playing Vivaldi.

Every Friday night, the Louvre stays open late, until 10 p.m., and admission is free for everyone under 26. Even on normal days, nearly 39 percent of visitors are 25 and younger.

On this night Paris conservatory students are giving a concert, and the crowd is especially young and chic. They settle in among the statues and await the opening chords.

And there it is: the groovy sound of bossa nova. It's unexpected, but somehow works.

8:55 p.m.: Nightfall.

Gold-red sunbeams pour into the pyramid. Outside, tiny lights flicker on in the Cour Carree courtyard, and the sculptures on the facade glow, suddenly spectral. Someone is playing the flute.

Soon the museum will close.

These are magic moments, when the museum is falling asleep.

Sometimes, a guard such as Grimm might spend half an hour in a remote room, full of glittering objects but devoid of visitors. "It's like you're in a film, maybe a horror film," he says.

And then the sky grows dark. In a long column, guards file out of the building. Doors are locked. Nighttime security staffers settle in for the night, watching, waiting for the next day.

Some tourists who visit Paris avoid the Louvre. They say it's too intimidating, too impersonal, too full of old things.

They're wrong. It's the very heart of the city.

By Angela Doland