During the French Republican and Napoleonic eras, art looting became standard practice for victorious armies. Napoleon took over the leadership of the French army during the campaign in Italy that had begun disastrously, with under-nourished, unpaid soldiers on the brink of mutiny. Stealing art from the conquered territories became a way of both raising funds to support the war effort, and to raise morale back at home in Paris, where the newly-converted Louvre museum would become a sort of trophy case for the victorious to display the treasures of the conquered. His policy was first made clear in the armistice signed by the defeated Duke of Modena on 17 May 1796, which stated: “The Duke of Modena undertakes to hand over twenty pictures. They will be selected by commissioners sent for that purpose from among the pictures in his gallery and realm.” This established a precedent for payment and reparations in the form of art that would continue, both encouraging conquerors and dismaying the conquered, for centuries.
Napoleonic Art Looting (1796-1812)
Napoleon established the first official military division dedicated to seizing and shipping captured artworks. Specially-trained personnel would follow behind the army to inventory, pack, and ship art. All confiscations were strictly monitored in the presence of a French army official. The army would be responsible for the art and its shipping back to Paris. This division was called the Commission of Arts and Sciences, and was led by a mathematician, a botanist, and two painters.
But despite Napoleon’s attempts at restricting looting to official actions, it was not only the armies that benefited. One of Napoleon’s officers in charge of art plunder, the painter Citizen Wicar, took so many prints and drawings for himself that, upon his death, after having sold most of what he stole, he still had 1436 artworks to bequeath to his hometown of Lille. Napoleon’s art advisor, Dominique Vivant Denon, became the first director of The Louvre Museum, and was the mastermind behind the art theft scheme that made The Louvre the treasure house of the world.
In May 1796, when the Commission came to Modena to take the specified twenty pictures detailed in the armistice, Citizen Wicar was present. He stole a further fifty paintings from the Modena collection for himself and only stopped there because Napoleon himself arrived on the scene. Not to be outdone, Napoleon ordered his commissioners to stop taking any more art, but then he chose two paintings for his personal collection.
This set a precedent that was followed in the armistices in French victories over Venice, Mantua, Parma, and Milan. Ironically Venice was stripped by Napoleon of the four bronze horses that the Venetians had stolen from Constantinople in 1204. Napoleon’s art thefts led to altered military strategy, for Naples and Turin were left largely un-looted because they chose to sign a treaty immediately with Napoleon before they came under attack, and therefore had more leverage in their relations. They lost the least to plunder of any vanquished Italian cities.
Napoleon extracted the most from the Papal States. Pope Pius VI signed the Treaty of Tolentine in June 1796, yielding to the Napoleonic army. In addition to the payment of 21 million lives (around $60 million today), Article 8 of the treaty stated that the pope was to give Napoleon: “A hundred pictures, busts, vases, or statues to be selected by the commissioners and sent to Rome, including in particular the bronze bust of Junius Brutus and the marble bust of Marcus Brutus, both on the Capitol, also five-hundred manuscripts at the choice of the said commissions.” Eighty-three sculptures were taken as well, including Laocoon and the Apollo Belvedere, and paintings taken included Raphael’s Transfiguration. As if that were not enough, Napoleon insisted that the pope pay for the shipping to Paris of the art stolen from him, a bill of another 800,000 livres (or $2.3 million today). Forty paintings were taken from papal lands in Bologna and ten from Ferrara. Looted art from Bologna alone required eighty-six wagons to transport. Of this, Napoleon enthusiastically wrote: “The Commission of experts has made a fine haul in Ravenna, Rimini,Pesaro, Ancona, Loretto, and Perugia. The whole lot will be forwarded to Paris without delay. There is also the consignment from Rome itself. We have stripped Italy of everything of artistic worth, with the exception of a few objects in Turin and Naples!”
This was the first of several wars in which certain renowned masterpieces, such as Jan van Eyck’s The Ghent Altarpiece, became prized spoils, with armies and collectors vying with one another to capture these key treasures, as valuable symbolically as they were financially. Much of the desire to possess The Ghent Altarpiece, which bears the dubious distinction of being the most frequently stolen artwork in history, was due to the fact that so many other people sought it, either for personal or national collections. The result was cumulative—the desirability of the artwork accrued with each high-profile incident of its capture and return. Denon sought it for The Louvre, and because of the high esteem in which he held the painting, its fame grew, prompting others to desire it for themselves. It would be one of the top targets for the Germans during the First World War, one of only a few cultural objects listed by name and returned by the Treaty of Versailles, and would likewise top the looted art wish-lists of both Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring.
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