PARIS — The square at the center of the Louvre, dominated by I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid, was desolate early Friday morning, save for a few tourists taking selfies.
The museum was closed to visitors, as Paris experienced its worst flooding since 1982 — but inside, staff members and volunteers had worked around the clock to remove artworks from the threat of the rising waters of the Seine River.
I was part of a small group of journalists whom the French culture minister, Audrey Azoulay; the museum’s president, Jean-Luc Martinez; and other officials took on a tour of the strangely vacant museum on Friday afternoon. (Broadcast journalists were given priority; we scribblers tagged behind, straining to hear what was said.)
We were led through the Denon Wing, home of the “Mona Lisa” and usually the most crowded of the museum’s three wings. Rooms packed with Renaissance and Baroque Italian masterpieces were ghostly. The “Winged Victory of Samothrace” was bereft of its usual admirers.
Inside the galleries containing Greek and Roman antiquities, the situation was more chaotic. Near the 2,200-year-old “Venus de Milo,” storage boxes were piled atop one another. Boxes completely encircled some sculptures, like one of a crouching Aphrodite from the third century B.C.
At the other end of the room, the goddess of wisdom, Athena, kept an eye on the metal drawers stacked to her side. The Hellenistic gallery had become just another storage room for treasures from elsewhere in the Louvre.
Some 150,000 artworks in storage rooms, and an additional 7,000 pieces in galleries, were deemed vulnerable to flooding, and many of them were moved to higher floors starting on Thursday evening.
Museum officials activated a flood-protection plan established in 2002. The plan includes, among other things, an inventory of all works that would need to be transferred to upper floors of the museum and plans to slow the spread of any water entering the museum.
Although the Seine was expected to crest by Friday evening at around 20 feet, and no water had entered the museum thus far, officials were taking no chances.
The works that were in storage were the easiest to handle. “It took us less time than we thought, because the artwork was already in containment boxes, so we just had to move them from one floor to an upper one,” said Adel Ziane, the museum’s deputy director of communications.
The most painstaking work involved the removal of works from display cases. Yannick Lintz, the head curator of Islamic art at the Louvre, posted to Twitter images of the display cases, emptied after a long night of work, and of the plastic storage crates where the objects were wrapped and packaged.
In some galleries, it looked as though a family was about to move in — or out. Boxes were subdivided by foam boards, creating spaces for vases and other precious objects. A seemingly abandoned ancient frieze sat on a wooden pallet on the floor of one gallery, half wrapped in plastic sheets.
“For the artwork which was exhibited and not in storage, like for the department of Islamic art, we had to move the pieces from their window displays,” Mr. Ziane said. “We have a team of exhibition-space managers who take care of handling the artwork, and a team of curators who watch over everything.”
For all its complexity, it was nothing like 1938-39, when the museum was stripped of its masterpieces ahead of the German invasion of France in 1940. “Walls of Louvre Blankly Stare While Treasures Rest in Vaults,” aheadline in the European edition of The New York Herald Tribune declared. The museum was partly reopened during the German occupation, but without its top masterpieces, which were hidden in secret locations across France. (Nazi officials eventually discovered the location of most of them, but decided to leave them in place.)
The 2002 flood-protection plan, for all its detail, does not prioritize among works of art. How, in a palace of treasures, can one select the very best?
“It is difficult to say which one is more valuable,” Mr. Ziane said. “They are all priceless, and we decided the evacuation according to their risk of exposure.”
Besides Islamic art, the staff also moved works from Coptic displays and most of the Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities in storage.
Mr. Martinez, the museum’s president, said it was difficult to estimate the total number of works moved, but he said it amounted to “thousands and thousands.” Officials were monitoring the levels of the Seine constantly, he said, to see if they needed to move even more works.
“The situation is changing hour per hour — it is still difficult to know when we are going to reopen,” he said.
Earlier this year, the museum did a training exercise, simulating a flood situation, involving in the Islamic art department. That helped the process this week move more smoothly.
But in the long run, the Louvre plans to move more artworks that are not on display to another location. By 2019, it intends to store nearly all those works in the regional branch of the Louvre in Lens, about 125 miles north of Paris.
Tourism is a big driver of the French economy, and Ms. Azoulay, who became culture minister in February, took pains to emphasize that things were under control.
”For now, the artworks of the Louvre are not in danger,” she said. “We have anticipated the situation and the emergency plan worked quite well.”
Other institutions, however, were less fortunate, particularly those in the Loire Valley.
The Musée Girodet in Montargis, devoted to the work of the Romantic painter Anne-Louis Girodet, was heavily damaged.
In the Loire Valley, bridges sustained damage and antique furniture was destroyed at the 16th-century Château de la Ferté-Saint-Aubin, which only recently reopened after a renovation. About 25 miles away, the Château de Chambord, a Unesco World Heritage site, was heavily damaged.
And the gardens of the Château de Fougères-sur-Bièvre, about 130 miles southwest of Paris, were completely submerged. “It is such a waste, because we had just finished two years of restoration work,” said Philippe Bélaval, the president of the National Monuments Center of France.