Stolen From Italy

Stolen From Italy
29 November 2016 0 Comment

It was in the spring of 1816 that the Papal States’ masterpieces of art and archaeology returned to Rome after the Napoleonic confiscations. This event was preceded and accompanied by many local administrations recovering many of the approximately 500 paintings that had been confiscated throughout the Italian peninsula in the course of French military campaigns from 1796 to 1814, and packed off to Paris where they were selected for display in the new Musée du Louvre.

A Consummate Thief

Napoleon began his illustrious career in art plundering as general of the French forces in Italy. Both the general and the Directoire in Paris assigned art experts to accompany the army. Napoleon’s commission to Jacques-Pierre Tinet named him “agent attached to the army of Italy charged with gathering, in the conquered lands, paintings, masterpieces and other monuments of antiquity that will be judged worthy to be sent to Paris”. The art requisitions in Italy differed from those in Belgium and the Rhine Cities in that they were generally formalized in the treaties imposed on the various Italian states. Subsequently, the French could claim that the flow of masterpieces from Italy to France was proper because the Italians had assented to it in legal documents.

The haul from Italy was commensurate with the extent of the treasures to be harvested: immense. In early May, Bonaparte had requested a list of the paintings, sculptures and other collections to be found in Milan, Parma, Piacenza, Modena and Bologna. The armistice with the Duke of Parma (May 1796) required him to turn over 20 paintings, to be chosen by the French commanding general. The Duke of Modena was obligated to offer 20 paintings plus 70 manuscripts from the library. Bologna lost 31 paintings, 115 prints, 546 manuscripts and some Etruscan antiquities. The treaty with Venice (May 1797) stipulated 20 paintings and 500 manuscripts. In addition, the French carried away the four bronze horses of St. Mark’s cathedral and the lion of St. Mark’s square, though the treaty had made no mention of them. Milan, Verona, Perugia, Loreto, Pavia, Cento, Cremona, Pesaro, Fano and Massa all rendered to Napoleon his artistic tribute. By the treaty of Tolentino (February 1797), Pope Pius VI agreed to hand over 100 treasures from the Vatican, to be shipped immediately to France.

One of the art commissioners in Italy, Thouin, wrote a letter urging that the treasures from the peninsula not be unloaded on the quai du Louvre like so many boxes of soap and proposing a triumphal procession. The ensuing celebration in July 1798 included a parade of art treasures—including the Apollo Belvedere, the Laocoön, Raphael’s Transfiguration, the Saint Jerome of Correggio, and paintings by Titan and Veronese—on 29 carts, accompanied by troops, dignitaries, a military band and wagons with caged bears, lions and camels. Preceding the carts was a banner whose inscription explicitly placed France alongside the great ancient civilizations: “La Grèce les cèda, Rome les a perdus; Leur sort changea deux fois, il ne changera plus”. The parade ended at the Champ-de-Mars and moved on the next day to the Louvre, which had become the preeminent center for the collection of art in Europe.

An Italian Conundrum?

Thousands of art works began their way home to Italy which included many great paintings and sculptures that had been removed from Italian churches and convents after the religious orders had been suppressed in the early 19th century. While it is true the Louvre managed to keep many fine Italian pieces without which it would be ranked as a 2nd-class museum, Italy was struggling with how best to preserve and display so much great art and history.

The sheer mass of paintings were now in state ownership and stored in improvised warehouses, fueling a lively debate, at the time, on the public value of art heritage and fostered the foundation of museums that still number among the country’s leading cultural institutions today, and include the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, Pinacoteca in Bologna and the Galleria Nazionale in Perugia.

A Great Artistic Legacy for All of the World.

I am the first to admit that I have been a critic of the way many Italian museums throw their public collections together and display them in poor conditions – missing descriptions, blown lights that have never been replaced and the completely unacceptable behavior of mostly bored and ill-prepared guards who spend more time on their mobile phones than interacting with the public.

Money or the lack of money is always the excuse thrown at critics like me for the “ad-hoc” displays of Italian art in Italian museums. Things are slowly improving in Italy and they need to; because without the rich history and patrimony of Italian art displayed with the respect the works deserve, the world is a much poorer place.

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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