The Twin Cities' splashiest big-ticket exhibit of the last year was also the best. "The Louvre and the Masterpiece" brought more than 60 works of art from the world's greatest museum to MIA in October for a three-month run. The exhibit, sparely but elegantly hung on dark-gray walls, spanned 4,000 years of visual art, from ancient Egyptian statuary to Renaissance drawings by Michelangelo and Da Vinci to 17th- and 18th-century paintings by Vermeer and Chardin. The concept behind the show may have been a bit heady and diffuse: What is a masterpiece, and how has the definition changed through time? And in this case, the "masterpieces" were generally minor works by well-known artists (the Da Vinci was a tempera drapery study supposedly painted in his teens; the Michelangelo was a messy page of sketches). Even so, the exhibit's two showpieces entirely lived up to their billing: Vermeer's surprisingly small The Astronomer, showing a scientist gazing at a globe in the warm light of Vermeer's famous window, and Antoine-Louis Barye's Lion With Serpent, a large, dramatic bronze sculpture depicting a lion crushing a snake. And several charming surprises awaited, such as an 18th-century lead bust from Franz Xaver Messerschmidt of a man looking like he's about to cry, and a breathtakingly ornate French silver pitcher. Minnesotans will still have to go to Paris to see the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, but the MIA's show was a rare chance to see some of history's most celebrated art and artists on our own turf.