‘Glory of arms and art’: Napoleonic plunder and the birth of national museums

Text by: Benjamin DODMAN

Napoléon’s military conquests fuelled a vast and unprecedented migration of artworks aimed at establishing a “universal museum” in Paris, the self-proclaimed capital of knowledge and the arts. The rise and fall of the Napoleonic Louvre fundamentally altered the way Europeans perceived art and heritage, inspiring a race to create national museums and presaging the colonial plunder of the rest of the world.

In October 1800, as Napoléon’s armies approached the gates of Florence, a most unusual convoy slipped out of the Tuscan capital, sailing down the River Arno to the seaport of Livorno.

The secretive convoy, commissioned by Tommaso Puccini, the head of the Uffizi art gallery, ferried 75 crates stacked with some of the finest sculptures and paintings from the Florentine museum and the city’s ducal palace. Among them was a marble statue known as the Venus de’ Medici, a staple of the Grand Tour that had caught Napoléon’s eye four years earlier. In Livorno, the precious cargo was loaded onto a British frigate and promptly dispatched to Sicily, out of Bonaparte’s reach – for the time being.

An art lover and a patriot, Puccini had spent months plotting the escape, mindful of the scourge that had struck the peninsula’s other città d’arte since Napoléon first crossed the Alps in 1796. Like other Italians, he had watched aghast as Rome was stripped of its most celebrated treasures and the thousand-year-old Venetian Republic was subjugated and plundered.

…(read more).

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