Looting has been around since ancient times. The Romans established a precedent that lasted more than 2,000 years. After the Romans it became standard practice to remove treasures from the vanquished in order to weaken their status. Booty also provided funds to pay for military campaigns. Subsequently, looting became an acceptable reason to start a war, from the Vikings to the Conquistadors, to medieval princes.
Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t the first or the last leader to steal art from conquered territories. While Adolf Hitler was the largest wartime looter, Napoleon and his troops pillaged art on an epic scale. Yet, just before Napoleon came on the scene, Revolutionary France was already seizing valuable art works for its crowning achievement: The Louvre Museum. Europe’s great artworks would now belong to the people, not just kings and popes. The museum opened in 1793 with artwork mostly taken from the French royal collections and Church property. But where to get more? France’s new leaders decided that paintings would be “liberated” by conquest. They justified the art appropriation not only by the belief that the spoils of war belonged to the victor, but also by the belief that France was the best place for art: “The French Republic, by its strength and superiority of its enlightenment and its artists, is the only country in the world which can give a safe home to these masterpieces.”
The glory-seeking Napoleon embraced this way to enrich the new French museum. In 1796 his army swept through Italy seizing treasures from vanquished cities. The acquisitions were highly organized, the art was selected by specialists, and the seizures took place through peace treaties. The Vatican too was required to relinquish valuable manuscripts and to pay for the transportation of the confiscated treasures to Paris. In the February 1797 Treaty of Tolentino, French commissioners could enter any building—public, private, or religious—to confiscate artistic works. Among the ancient sculptures surrendered by the Vatican were the Apollo Belvedere, Laocoön and His Sons, and the Dying Gaul. Napoleon wrote: “The committee of scholars has reaped a good harvest at Ravenna, Rimini, Pesaro, Ancona, Loreto and Perugia. Joined to what we shall be sending from Rome, that will give us everything of beauty in Italy except for a few things at Turin and Naples.”
By May 1797, Napoleon’s troops reached Venice. They removed the winged lion from St. Mark’s Square and the famous four horses from St. Mark’s Basilica, which were eventually placed on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in Paris. Other plundered art included The Wedding Feast at Cana (to be discussed in Part II), and other paintings by Veronese, Titian and Tintoretto.
The Italian war booty was paraded through the streets of Paris in a “Festival of Liberty” in July 1798. A banner on the cart carrying the Apollo Belvedere proclaimed: “Greece ceded them, Rome lost them. Their fate has changed twice; it will not change again.” The art was destined for the new national museum at the Louvre, which was renamed Le Museé Napoleon in 1802.