Legacy of Napoleon’s artistic plunder on show in Rome
When he was just plain old Bonaparte, the man who was to became Napoleon pillaged works of art from all over Europe with the aim of making the Louvre in Paris a museum for all mankind.
Now some of the major works that the little corporal’s armies took from Italy have been gathered together in an exhibition in Rome to mark the 200th anniversary of their restitution, and the unexpectedly positive legacy of the whole episode.
“When the works came back, it made people here realize the importance of their artistic heritage, and, for the first time, they came to see it as a shared, common asset,” says museum director Mario De Simoni.
The Universal Museum runs until March 12 at the Scuderie del Quirinale, an exhibition space created in what were once the stables of the Quirinale, a former papal and royal palace that is now the official residence of Italy’s president.
Fittingly, the centerpiece of the exhibition of some 100 pieces is Raphael’s painting Pope Leo X with Two Cardinals, which is on loan from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Also on display, along with a series of Renaissance sculptures, is Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, which normally resides in the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice and was once hailed by Oscar Wilde as the finest paint- ing in all of Italy.
“We wanted to tell the story of Napoleon’s great project of creating a museum that would be a model for Europe, distancing ourselves from the interpretation of this episode in history as nothing more than theft,” says curator Valter Curzio.
Plunder to patrimony
Napoleon assembled his Louvre-bound stash over the course of several military campaigns between 1796 and 1814.
The success of his 1796-97 Italian campaign enabled Napoleon to exact an enormous tribute in the form of artworks from Pope Pio VI under the Treaty of Tolentina.
An 1811 decree ordered the transfer to the French crown of all paintings and artworks held in public buildings in Rome and around.
Five years later, after Napoleon’s political-military career ended with defeat in the Battle of Waterloo, most of the “borrowed” artworks were sent back to Italy.
Many languished in storage until, years later, they were sought out as founding exhibits for what are now some of Italy’s leading museums, including the Brera in Milan and the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.
“What the Italians had initially seen as something damaging was transformed by the mystery of history into awareness of this wonderful heritage that we are still enjoying to this day,” says De Simoni.