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Francis Haskell explains how paintings of the old masters helped influence the development of museums in the 18th century.

As anyone who has been to the Louvre in Paris or the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid knows, these institutions can have an outsize effect on a city. Travelers are drawn by the art, of course, but also by the architecture and historical relics within its walls. Below, one book looks at how old master paintings have influenced the development of museums, while another offers a guided tour across Europe.A third, set largely in the Louvre, is a breathless thriller readers will devour on a long flight.

THE EPHEMERAL MUSEUM
Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition
By Francis Haskell
200 pp. Yale University Press. (2000)

Nowadays we expect museums that are not focused on a particular artist or style to display the work of old masters, artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. But in this account of old master exhibitions and how they informed the development of museums, the art historian Francis Haskell explains that many of these pieces were previously displayed in churches or galleries. It was not until the late 16th century that they were determined to have high value; the advent of museums in the 18th century gave them permanent homes.

US
David Nicholls
396 pp. Harper. (2015)

“Us” begins as a couple embark on a summer trip to Europe with their son, who is set to begin art school in the fall. Shortly before the trip, Douglas Petersen’s wife informs him that she may be leaving him. The story of the couple’s courtship and marriage is told in alternating chapters as the family ticks off the stops on their trip: the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Rijksmuseum. As expected, the trip goes awry, and Douglas — a Type A biochemist who created a meticulous itinerary for the trip — is left to finish it on his own. Douglas is an entertaining guide; for example, while recounting the history of art in his own words, he comments, “Some bright spark realized that things in the distance looked smaller and the pictures of the Virgin Mary and the Crucifixion improved hugely.”

THE DA VINCI CODE
Dan Brown
454 pp. Doubleday. (2003)

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This classic pop thriller opens as the curator of the Louvre Museum in Paris, Jacques Saunière, is fighting for his life. Before he is murdered, he uses his final moments to arrange his body in the form of Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man” and leaves behind an anagram and Fibonacci’s numeral series as clues. Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of art history and religious symbology, is called in to help investigate. But he soon learns from the cryptologist Sophie Neveu that he is actually a suspect in the case. The two become co-conspirators in a race to solve the murder. The reader will be engaged by the analysis of art, religious symbols and history.

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