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‘Glory of arms and art’: Napoleonic plunder and the birth of national museums


Napoléon’s military conquests fuelled a vast and unprecedented migration of artworks aimed at establishing a “universal museum” in Paris, the self-proclaimed capital of knowledge and the arts. The rise and fall of the Napoleonic Louvre fundamentally altered the way Europeans perceived art and heritage, inspiring a race to create national museums and presaging the colonial plunder of the rest of the world.

In October 1800, as Napoléon’s armies approached the gates of Florence, a most unusual convoy slipped out of the Tuscan capital, sailing down the River Arno to the seaport of Livorno.

The secretive convoy, commissioned by Tommaso Puccini, the head of the Uffizi art gallery, ferried 75 crates stacked with some of the finest sculptures and paintings from the Florentine museum and the city’s ducal palace. Among them was a marble statue known as the Venus de’ Medici, a staple of the Grand Tour that had caught Napoléon’s eye four years earlier. In Livorno, the precious cargo was loaded onto a British frigate and promptly dispatched to Sicily, out of Bonaparte’s reach – for the time being.

An art lover and a patriot, Puccini had spent months plotting the escape, mindful of the scourge that had struck the peninsula’s other città d’arte since Napoléon first crossed the Alps in 1796. Like other Italians, he had watched aghast as Rome was stripped of its most celebrated treasures and the thousand-year-old Venetian Republic was subjugated and plundered.

Napoleon shows off the Apollo del Belvedere and the Laocoon Group upon his return from Italy.
Napoleon shows off the Apollo del Belvedere and the Laocoon Group upon his return from Italy. © Library of Congress, Wikimedia creative commons

Even as he guided the Uffizi’s treasures to the safety of Palermo, Puccini made no secret of his fears for the countless artworks left behind: “I tremble for the bronze door of the Baptistry, the Perseus, the Centaur, Donatello’s Saint George slaying the Dragon, and the foremost paintings in our churches.”

His fears were well founded. In subsequent years, Napoléon’s commissars would sift through churches, galleries and princely quarters in Florence and the other Tuscan cradles of the Renaissance, cherry-picking the most prized pieces for the Louvre in Paris, where many still reside.

Cataclysm

The pillage triggered by Napoléon’s invasion of the peninsula were nothing short of a “cataclysm”, says Valter Curzi, a professor of Art History at La Sapienza university in Rome and the curator of a recent exhibition on the Roman artworks that were repatriated after Napoléon’s final defeat, held at the Scuderie del Quirinale museum. 

“They constituted the first significant dismantling of the Italian territory’s artistic heritage,” and a “traumatic experience” for the peninsula’s weak and fragmented duchies, republics and kingdoms, Curzi explains. The lootings gave birth to the following quip, a pun on the Corsican’s original name: “Not all the French are thieves, but Buonaparte (a large part) certainly are.” 


Unprecedented both in scale and purpose, the confiscations of art can only be understood in their historical context: they were a product of the age’s infatuation with the Classics, of the French Revolution’s universalist pretensions, and of Napoléon’s own success and ambition. 

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“The requisitions reflected the formation of a collective European identity that found its roots in classical antiquity and its rediscovery during the Renaissance,” says Curzi. “The nation that in those years wielded the greatest intellectual power, on top of its military superiority, felt it was its right and duty to exercise this leadership.”

When Napoléon embarked on his first Italian campaign in 1796, the 26-year-old general carried written orders from France’s ruling Directoire that enjoined him to treat military and artistic conquests as going hand in hand. 

“The glory of art and that of the army under your orders are inseparable,” the orders read. “Italy owes art the greater part of its riches and its fame, but the time of French rule has come, to consolidate and beautify the kingdom of liberty.” 

Referring to the former royal palace of the Louvre, which the Revolution had converted into a museum open to all citizens, the Directoire added: “The national museum should hold all celebrated artistic monuments, and you will not fail to enrich it with the armed conquest of Italy and those that the future still holds.”

Two years later, with much of Italy at Napoléon’s feet, the French authorities organised a grand celebration of his military victories, parading the conquered “artistic monuments” through the streets of Paris. They included the Horses of Saint Mark, a symbol of the Venetian Republic, and Rome’s Apollo del Belvedere, regarded as the foremost ancient sculpture, along with Raphael’s most acclaimed paintings. 

An engraving by Pierre Gabriel Berthault showing the arrival of art and exotic animals taken by Napoleon during his first Italian campaign.
An engraving by Pierre Gabriel Berthault showing the arrival of art and exotic animals taken by Napoleon during his first Italian campaign. © Wikimedia creative commons

Commemorative prints of the event proclaimed that “Greece gave up [the art], Rome lost it; twice its fortune changed, it won’t change again”. As a song written for the occasion put it, “Rome is no more in Rome, it is all in Paris.”

A highly partial reading of history was summoned to justify French acquisitions, adds Curzi: “As a free nation liberated from the tyranny of monarchy, France saw itself as entitled to the masterpieces of Antiquity and the Renaissance, which supposedly were also the fruit of free and democratic regimes.”

‘Rendez-vous of all Europe’

Such was the context for the birth of the Louvre museum, still the world’s most visited landmark, says Andrew McClellan, a professor of art history at Tufts University in Massachusetts and author of several works on Napoleonic spoliations, for whom “Enlightenment fantasies of universal knowledge combined with traditional victor’s rights to spolia make a potent recipe for museum building.”

Among the motives for French confiscations, McClellan lists “greed, military ambition, belief in the superiority of France’s political system, and the misplaced conviction that creating one great museum in one place would be better than the same art dispersed.” He adds: “Of course, they only believed that if the museum were to be in Paris.”

As for Napoléon himself, McClellan notes, “he didn’t have much, if any, interest in art, but he understood the symbolic value of taking great art from others and the propaganda value of having the best artists paint his portraits and commemorate his immortal acts.”

The future emperor inherited from the Revolution its ambition of turning Paris into the unrivalled capital of knowledge and the arts, a “rendez-vous of all Europe”. The jewel in the crown was naturally the Louvre, renamed the Musée Napoléon in 1802, which Britons rushed to visit after the short-lived Peace of Amiens was signed that year.

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From 1794 onwards, before Napoléon’s rise to power, the museum’s collections had been vastly expanded by a steady stream of artworks from the Low Countries, plundered by France’s revolutionary armies. Having seized all the Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Dyck they could carry, along with several shipments of natural history artifacts, the French looked south to the countless treasures of the Italian peninsula. 

Napoléon’s war booties would soon come to dwarf all others, but he differed from his predecessors in seeking to legitimise his confiscations through treaties signed with those he defeated or cowed into submission. Italy’s mini-states were each ordered to surrender a specific number of artworks. When these were deemed unworthy of the Louvre, the French helped themselves to the more prestigious items. If the locals resisted, as was the case in Venice, the punishment was severe.

Reprisals inflicted on the Serenissima included the destruction of the Bucintoro, the gold-leafed ceremonial barge of the Doges used for centuries to celebrate Venice’s “marriage with the sea”. The city’s famed arsenal was dismantled and churches, convents, and numerous palazzi were emptied of valuables and artworks. In addition to the Horses of Saint Mark, which Napoléon later placed atop his triumphant Arc du Carrousel, the French took away Veronese’s monumental Wedding Feast at Cana, which still faces the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.

Veronese's "The Wedding Feast at Cana" (1563), taken from the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice and still hanging prominently in the Louvre today.
Veronese’s “The Wedding Feast at Cana” (1563), taken from the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice and still hanging prominently in the Louvre today. © Wikimedia creative commons

“The French campaigns marked the first time that special commissions were set up to identify, locate and collect the most famous masterpieces,” says La Sapienza’s Curzi. “Their members possessed extensive knowledge of the arts and knew exactly where to go and fetch it.”

In line with the neoclassical tastes that were prevalent at the time, Napoléon’s agents in Italy aimed first for Greek and Roman antiquities and the masterpieces of the High Renaissance, regarded as the scions of classical art. Later on, their focus broadened as they sought to turn the Louvre into an encyclopaedia of the history of art.

In 1810, a decade after Puccini’s flight to Sicily, a decree suppressing religious orders in recently annexed Italian territories presented the Musée Napoléon with a golden opportunity to fill “gaps” in its collections. The next year, the museum’s director Dominique Vivant Denon travelled in person to Tuscany to handpick works by Cimabue, Giotto and other “fathers” of the Renaissance – thereby confirming Puccini’s fears. 

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By then, the booty from Napoléon’s successive military campaigns in Prussia, Austria and Spain had further diversified the museum’s possessions, building on the huge collection of Flemish masters previously amassed by France’s revolutionary armies, and bringing the Louvre closer to fulfilling the Enlightenment dream of a “universal museum” – by European standards, at least.

Civilising Europeans – and despoiling the ‘uncivilised’

Denon’s encyclopaedic appetite for art helped transform the nature and purpose of art galleries. While Napoléon was certainly more interested in the propagandistic benefits of possessing the greatest masterpieces, he inherited from the Revolution the notion that they should not be for his own private enjoyment but for the benefit of all.

“Henceforth museums were no longer seen as a preserve of artists and the elite. Instead, they became the site of the citizens’ passeggiata (walk), readily available to all,” says Curzi. “Indeed, when other nations rushed to set up their own national museums after the fall of Napoléon, the idea was precisely to create a resource for the entire nation, not just a privileged few.”

When the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova recovered part of the Roman heritage taken by the French, with British help and money, he did so on the condition that the works of art be placed in public galleries and not returned to the churches and palaces they were designed for. The decision to relocate Raphael’s altarpieces in the newly founded Pinacoteca Vaticana, the Vatican museums, effectively altered the status of artworks, shifting from devotional objects to instruments of intellectual and educational nourishment. 

In Italy and elsewhere, the theft of art generated unprecedented interest and pride in national heritage that had long gone unnoticed to all but the connoisseurs. Across Europe, grand parades were organised to celebrate the return of masterpieces after 1815, mirroring the celebrations that had taken place in Paris years before. Many other stolen works, however, remained in France.

A reconstruction of the "The Gonzaga Family in Adoration of the Holy Trinity", by Peter Paul Rubens, which was cut apart by Napoleon's armies in Mantua, northern Italy.
A reconstruction of the “The Gonzaga Family in Adoration of the Holy Trinity”, by Peter Paul Rubens, which was cut apart by Napoleon’s armies in Mantua, northern Italy. © Wikimedia creative commons

The mass migration of art also inspired criticism that still haunts the world’s greatest museums, including the notion that artworks are fatally stripped of meaning and purpose when they are removed from their original settings. For nostalgics of the Grand Tour, in particular, the removal of antiquities from their Roman environment was seen as an act of vandalism.

Critics of the Napoleonic Louvre, however, had no such qualms when it came to looting art from lands then regarded as “uncivilised”. The simultaneous British acquisition of marbles from the Athenian Parthenon, in particular, was widely celebrated as having rescued a symbol of Antiquity from the hands of the Turks.

At the turn of the century, mastery of the seas had allowed the British to frustrate Napoléon’s ambitions in Egypt and claim the spoils of his expedition, including the Rosetta Stone that ended up at the British Museum rather than the Louvre. But in 1815, as each European state reclaimed its share of Napoléon’s loot, returning Egyptian art was never an issue.

“The Ottomans didn’t want it back – it didn’t conform to their religious beliefs or cultural priorities,” McClellan explains. “This is why the British could take the Parthenon sculptures, also then under Ottoman rule. Incidentally, they were especially motivated to take them because they knew that if they didn’t, the French would.”

>> How Napoléon’s invasion ‘revealed Egypt to the world – and to itself’

The scramble for the monuments of Antiquity prefigured the scramble for colonies that would only accelerate during the 19th century, both of them cloaked in heady civilisational rhetoric. In the decades after Napoléon’s defeat, the claims of moral superiority that had so incensed his rivals were increasingly used to justify the colonial confiscation of non-European art.

“The return of art after 1815 formed an important precedent for dealing with cultural property – at least among ‘civilised’ nations,” McClellan explains. “They stopped looting each other and turned to mass looting of ‘uncivilised’ lands instead.”

Far from spelling the end of the “universal museum”, the partial dismantling of the Louvre paved the way for a boom in museum-building across the continent as countries competed to have the finest collections – though French universalist pretentions gradually gave way to more nationally-focused museums. Meanwhile, Denon’s best efforts to frustrate the restitution of stolen art helped ensure that the Louvre’s collections would remain second to none.

“The political power of having a great museum, as a symbol of enlightened governance and engine of superior artistic production, became irresistible to European nations after Napoléon,” McClellan concludes. “It has since spread all over the world. No country can afford to do without one.”

Frieze sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, part of the so-called "Elgin Marbles" on display at the British Museum.
Frieze sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, part of the so-called “Elgin Marbles” on display at the British Museum. © Leon Neal, AFP



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