It is September, 1939. Most of Europe was expecting and fearing war, watching Hitler and his entourage. In Paris, albeit most of Europe, museum curators were scrambling to solidify plans to store, protect and safeguard their collections. By this point, war seemed inevitable, and most able-bodied men were already planning to, or had joined the military. In the bigger cities, people who were integral to government work, and the little daily needs (ministers down to shop clerks, bankers to news men) were near all that was left.
The Louvre, the quintessential patriarchal museum of France was no exception. Winged Victory of Samothrace is displayed on a landing atop the Daru staircase, and she comes into focus the further up you climb. She was discovered in the mid 1800’s, and painstakingly repaired and rebuilt from literally thousands of fragments, and stands as the image of the Louvre, second only to DaVinci’s Mona Lisa.
Poland was annexed September 1. The curators at the Louvre, wanting both to protect and safeguard their collections had started to organize. The collections would be moved and housed in chalets and villas scattered throughout the south of France, most spaces donated by patrons of the museum, where collection and curators would find refuge.
The call went out to the citizens of Paris, and the Louvre turned from museum to giant packaging centre, where each important piece of the museum was painstakingly protected, packaged, and loaded onto one of several trucks, the museum was essentially cleared of most important works on 27 August after 2 days of packing. It was late December that year, when the last curator left the Louvre with a truck carrying the last “important” pieces, leaving only “minor” works hidden.
Winged Victory was removed from her pedestal, and in a 4 hour process to move her, loaded on to the “lead truck” of the first to leave the Louvre headed south. Much of this information, including dates, I did not really ‘know’, but a PBS documentary The Rape of Europa did tell much of this story, as well as document the Nazi’s the odd admiration they had for these works of beauty, and their willingness to go to great lengths to possess them. It’s worth the watch.
I didn’t watch it for the story though – although I have always been drawn to beautiful things, and the lengths people will go to acquire them; my interest was more personal in nature. My uncle, a boy of 16 at the time and son of a banking family that was highly regarded by the government, was one of the volunteers. He refers to Winged Victory as mon coeur plein d’espoir, his hopeful heart. That she symbolized for him the heart and soul of the museum and the world as he knew it.
After her return, it became a regular weekly occasion to wander the Louvre, gazing on pieces that might have been lost …always beginning and ending at Victory. I have been through every mile of the corridors, wandered the gardens, and revelled in the beauty. Always with my uncle, always hearing of where he knows or thinks each piece went. Yet each time, a softly whispered ‘adieu’ at the feet of Victory always was the last word spoken until we were out of the building.