The Masterpieces That Napoleon Stole, and How Some Went Back

PARIS — The spoils of battle had been positively magnificent.

When Napoleon Bonaparte led his military throughout the Alps, he ordered the Italian states he conquered at hand over artworks that had been the satisfaction of the peninsula. The Vatican was emptied of the “Laocoön,” a masterpiece of historic Greek sculpture, and Venice was stripped of Veronese’s portray “The Wedding Feast at Cana” (1563).

The goal was to “unite the greatest masterpieces of art in Paris” and “bring together, in a nation freed from despotism, all the products of human genius,” a video monitor within the enormous new exhibition “Napoleon,” on the Grande Halle de la Villette by means of Sept. 19, says of the expropriation.

He introduced again sufficient loot from his conquests to fill what would quickly grow to be the Louvre Museum. And his ravenous and methodical artwork seizures — a cultural legacy now being highlighted in 200th-anniversary commemorations of his loss of life — paved the way in which for related French excesses in sub-Saharan Africa a century later. Yet lots of these works had been returned after Napoleon’s defeat, setting precedents that also inform debates about restitution.

“Napoleon understood that the French kings had used art and architecture to aggrandize themselves and to build the image of political power, and he did exactly the same thing,” Cynthia Saltzman, the writer of “Plunder,” a historical past of Napoleon’s Italian artwork thefts, stated in an interview.

He pilfered about 600 work and sculptures from Italy alone, she famous, including that he sought to “link himself to these works of genius” and justify their plunder by invoking “the aims of the Enlightenment.”

“The Wedding Feast at Cana,” by Paolo Veronese, was seized by Napoleon’s forces and delivered to France, the place it stays.Credit…Louvre Museum; RMN-Grand Palais

Once Napoleon was defeated within the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, his adversaries hastened to offer again the Louvre’s looted treasures. It was “truly doleful to look at now,” wrote the British miniature painter Andrew Robertson on the time: “full of dust, ropes, triangles and pulleys.”

Roughly half of the Italian work that Napoleon had taken had been returned, Saltzman stated. The different half stayed in France, together with “The Wedding Feast at Cana.”

Why weren’t the others returned? Many had been scattered in museums across the nation, and French officers resisted giving them again. Each previously occupied state needed to put in a separate request for the return of their artworks, which made the method much more difficult, Saltzman stated.

Today, France retains essential items, together with a significant portray by Cimabue, panels from a Mantegna altarpiece, a portray by Titian, and one other Veronese, she added.

Yet the post-Napoleonic clearout of the Louvre now serves for example for the nation because it begins to offer again treasures taken from its former African colonies, stated Bénédicte Savoy, a historian who co-wrote a 2018 report on restitution to Africa commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron.

Savoy described the 1815 cultural repatriation as “the first major important act of restitution in modern times,” and stated that the negotiations had been hotly debated by newspapers and by intellectuals akin to Goethe and Stendhal. The “dismantling” of the Louvre, she stated, was “the model for cultural restitutions” that adopted.

Although loads was given again, the Napoleonic plunder left a bitter aftertaste that lingers to today. Italians nonetheless confer with “i furti napoleonici” (“the Napoleonic thefts”). In 2016 and 2017, masterpieces that Bonaparte had looted had been showcased in a particular Rome exhibition on the Scuderie del Quirinale.

Egypt often calls for the return of the Rosetta Stone, which was excavated throughout Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt (1798-1801), captured by the British at his defeat, and is now within the British Museum. A plaster case of it’s within the Paris exhibition.

Napoleon’s throne on show within the Halle de la Villette. He topped himself emperor of France in 1804.Credit…Martin Bureau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As the exhibition reveals — by means of a dizzying array of objects together with his monogrammed throne, a bejeweled sword and the rickety picket stagecoach that took him to his grave — Napoleon was a posh determine whose political and cultural methods had been formed by the French Revolution.

Ruth Scurr, a University of Cambridge lecturer who’s the writer of the brand new biography “Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows,” described Napoleon as a conqueror. “He understands himself to be stabilizing France, to be putting France’s interests first, to be bringing the country out of a period of complete chaos and revolutionary disruption,” she stated. He was additionally on “a revolutionary quest for knowledge,” envisaging a common museum in Paris and viewing himself as “a collector and a discoverer” not simply of artwork, but in addition of vegetation and animals.

Scurr’s e-book gives a vivid instance of how artwork was positioned on the service of politics. It describes a July 1798 parade through which contemporary loot from Italy was flaunted on the streets of Paris. The star points of interest had been 4 gilded-bronze horses that had been pulled down from the highest of the central door of St. Mark’s Basilica. (These bronze horses had, about six centuries earlier, been snatched by the Venetians from Constantinople through the Fourth Crusade.)

The parade additionally featured historic marble statues, wagon-loads of stay animals (ostriches, lions, camels and gazelles), uncommon books and manuscripts, and work — regardless that the crowds couldn’t really see the masterpieces. “Rome is no more in Rome. It is all in Paris,” the crowds chanted merrily, in response to Scurr.

Artifacts from Napoleon’s army campaigns on the Grande Halle de la Villette. His military invaded territory stretching from Egypt to Russia.Credit…Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA, through Shutterstock

Napoleon actually did need to carry the world’s treasures to Paris, and extra particularly to the Louvre, stated Vivien Richard, who heads the Louvre’s division that focuses on the museum’s historical past.

“He unquestionably founded the Louvre Museum as we know it today, with all the richness and variety of its collections,” he stated. In Napoleonic instances, “its mission was to enrich its collections and to be encyclopedic, and that mission prevails to this day.”

Savoy stated Napoleon’s formation of the Louvre’s first collections and their subsequent restitution had impressed the opening of many different public museums in Europe, together with new extensions to the Vatican Museums in Rome and the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

So why is Napoleon not condemned as ferociously for his cultural expropriation as French colonial forces are for his or her looting of Africa?

“The one enormous difference is duration: Napoleon’s occupation of Europe lasted a decade, not several decades or a century,” Savoy stated. Also, “the colonizers of Africa extracted all of the natural riches of those countries and took away all of their cultural treasures while humiliating their populations.”

“Napoleon,” she stated, “was not as extreme.”