One of the oldest human illusions is that culture is a conquest of, or an escape from, nature. It is an illusion we need to abandon fast.
We might nurture some desperate dream that, as the benign post-ice age climate that has made civilisation possible is destroyed by our own folly and greed, our own creations will survive. That in some no longer distant future the Mona Lisa and the Arnolfini portrait, the works of Shakespeare and the scores of Beethoven’s operas will still be safe in museums and archives and great libraries. In short, that civilisation’s treasures will survive the flood.
Some hope. As the river Seine has risen in Paris in recent days, no less a museum than the Louvre has had to close its doors (along with the Musée d’Orsay) so that staff can save its artistic masterpieces from floodwater. This is not just a bizarre consequence of a bit of bad weather. It is a stark warning that civilisation can only survive in harmony with nature. If we destroy our planet, we destroy not just our current way of life but the human heritage itself – the high points of civilisation will be forgotten, drowned, ruined, effaced.
It is scarily symbolic to see the Louvre menaced by flooding, as the world’s weather becomes ever less predictable and the signs of climate change impossible to ignore. No other museum so grandly preserves the finest achievements of our species. The Louvre was self-consciously created as a treasure house of world history. After it was founded in 1793 during the French revolution, initially to display paintings seized from French royal palaces (including the Mona Lisa), its horizons rapidly expanded under Napoleon. Scientists, artists and archaeologists accompanied Napoleon on his invasion of Egypt, which resulted in the mammoth collaborative study Description of Egypt and cosmopolitan new treasures for the Louvre. Napoleon claimed that “all men of genius are French” and looted masterpieces for the Louvre wherever his armies went.
Twenty-first century visitors to this encyclopedic museum still feel the power and glory of its Napoleonic ambitions as we wander its four vast wings (one of which is named after Napoleon’s chief artistic adviser, Denon) beholding masterpiece after masterpiece. Michelangelo? The Louvre has two of his greatest statues, the Rebellious Slave and the Dying Slave. Jan van Eyck? It has his glowing miniaturist marvel The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin. Ancient Greece? It’s got the Victory of Samothrace and, oh yes, the Venus de Milo. Is that all a bit too European? The Louvre also owns one of the most beautiful of all Mesopotamian sculptures, the delicate and moving statue of Ebih-Il.
If any museum sums up the best of human creativity through millennia, it is the Louvre. Now that it has been forced to close its doors, to take emergency measures against another of those weather events in which only the most foolhardy or corrupt refuse to see human-induced climate change, we can glimpse how our destructive side will wreck our best hopes if we don’t change.
Some environmentalists, of course, would say the fate of nature matters more than the fate of civilisation: that we humans have proved a pretty nasty little species. That is wrong. The great art that fills the Louvre proves it is wrong.
The most apocalyptic masterpiece in the Louvre is Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. As they cling to a raft on a savage sea, the last survivors of catastrophe have apparently been driven to cannibalism. Civilisation has died. Bare survival is all they have. Is that enough?