The louvre

The plunder that formed the Louvre

The spoils of war were positively magnificent. When Napoleon Bonaparte led his army across the Alps, he ordered the Italian states he conquered to hand over works of art that were the pride of the peninsula. The Vatican was gutted of Laocoon, a masterpiece of ancient Greek sculpture, and Venice was stripped of Veronese’s 1563 painting The Wedding at Cana.

The aim was to “bring together the greatest masterpieces of art in Paris” and to “bring together, in a nation freed from despotism, all the products of human genius”, a video monitor in the great new exhibition Napoleon, at the Grande Halle de la Villette, in Paris, until September 19, said of the expropriation.

He brought back enough booty from his conquests to fill what was soon to become the Louvre Museum. And his voracious and methodical art seizures – a cultural legacy now on full display in commemorations of the 200th anniversary of his death – paved the way for similar French excesses in sub-Saharan Africa a century later. Yet many of these works were returned after Napoleon’s defeat, setting precedents that still inform restitution debates.

Napoleon sought to “bind himself to these works of genius” and justify their plunder by invoking “the aims of the Enlightenment”

“Napoleon understood that the kings of France had used art and architecture to aggrandize themselves and to build the image of political power, and he did exactly the same,” says Cynthia Saltzman, the author of Plunder, a history of Napoleon’s Italian art thefts. .

He stole around 600 paintings and sculptures in Italy alone, she notes, adding that he sought to “connect himself with these works of genius” and justify their looting by invoking “enlightenment purposes”.

After Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, his opponents rushed to return the treasures looted from the Louvre. It was “really dismal to look at now”, British miniature painter Andrew Robertson wrote at the time, “full of dust, ropes, triangles and pulleys”.

The Wedding at Cana, by Paolo Veronese: the painting was seized by Napoleon’s forces in Venice and brought back to France, where it remains. Photography: Louvre Museum via the New York Times

About half of the Italian paintings Napoleon had taken were returned, Saltzman says. The other half remained in France, including Les Noces de Cana. Why weren’t the others fired? Many have been scattered in museums across the country and French authorities have refused to return them. Each formerly occupied state had to submit a separate application for the return of its artwork, which made the process even more complicated, according to Saltzman.

Today, France preserves important pieces, including a major painting by Cimabue, panels from an altarpiece by Mantegna, a painting by Titian and another by Veronese, she adds. Yet the post-Napoleonic cleaning of the Louvre now serves as an example for the country as it begins to return treasures taken from its former African colonies, says Benedicte Savoy, a historian who co-wrote a 2018 report on the restitution to Africa commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron.

Napoleon unquestionably founded the Louvre Museum as we know it today, with all the richness and variety of its collections.

Savoy describes the cultural repatriation of 1815 as “the first major act of significant restitution in modern times” and claims that the negotiations were hotly debated by newspapers and by intellectuals such as Goethe and Stendhal. The “dismantling” of the Louvre, she says, was “the model for the cultural restitutions” that followed.

Although much was returned, the Napoleonic plunder left a bitter aftertaste that lingers to this day. The Italians still speak of “i furti napoleonici” (“the Napoleonic flights”). In 2016 and 2017, masterpieces that Bonaparte had looted were displayed in a special exhibition in Rome at the Scuderie del Quirinale.

Egypt regularly demands the return of Rosetta stone, which was excavated during Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt (1798-1801), captured by the British upon his defeat, and is now in the British Museum. A plaster cast is at the Paris exhibition.

Napoleon's throne exhibited at the Halle de la Villette.  He crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty

Napoleon’s throne exhibited at the Halle de la Villette. He crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty

As the exhibition reveals through a dizzying array of objects, including his monogrammed throne, a jeweled sword and the rickety wooden stagecoach that carried him to his grave, Napoleon was a complex figure whose political strategies and cultures were shaped by the French Revolution.

Ruth Scurr, a Cambridge University professor and author of the new biography Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows, describes Napoleon as a conqueror. “He understands himself as stabilizing France, putting France’s interests first, leading the country out of a period of complete chaos and revolutionary upheaval,” she says. He was also on “a revolutionary quest for knowledge”, envisioning a universal museum in Paris and seeing himself as “a collector and discoverer” not only of art but also of plants and animals.

Why is Napoleon not condemned as fiercely for his cultural expropriation as are the French colonial forces for their plunder of Africa?

Scurr’s book provides a vivid example of how art has been put to work for politics. He describes a July 1798 parade in which booty fresh from Italy was paraded through the streets of Paris. The star attractions were four gilt bronze horses that had been shot from the top of the central doorway of St. Mark’s Basilica. (These bronze horses had, about six centuries earlier, been torn down by the Venetians in Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.)

The parade also included ancient marble statues, carts of live animals (ostriches, lions, camels and gazelles), rare books and manuscripts and paintings – although the crowd could not see the masterpieces. work. “Rome is no longer in Rome. It’s all in Paris,” the crowds happily chanted, according to Scurr.

Military uniforms on display at a Napoleon exhibition at the Halle de la Villette.  Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty

Military uniforms on display at a Napoleon exhibition at the Halle de la Villette. Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty

Napoleon really wanted to bring the treasures of the world to Paris, and more specifically to the Louvre, says Vivien Richard, who heads the Louvre’s department specializing in the history of the museum. “He unquestionably founded the Louvre Museum as we know it today, with all the richness and variety of its collections,” he says. In Napoleonic times, “its mission was to enrich its collections and to be encyclopaedic, and this mission still prevails today”.

Savoy says Napoleon’s formation of the Louvre’s early collections and their subsequent restitution inspired the opening of many other public museums in Europe, including new extensions to the Vatican Museums, Rome, and the Prado Museum, Madrid. .

So why is Napoleon not condemned as fiercely for his cultural expropriation as are the French colonial forces for their plunder of Africa? “The only huge difference is the duration: Napoleon’s occupation of Europe lasted a decade, not several decades or a century,” says Savoy. Also, “the colonizers of Africa extracted all the natural wealth of these countries and took away all their cultural treasures while humiliating their populations”. “Napoleon,” she says, “wasn’t that extreme.” – New York Times