After the 2014 film The Monuments Men (starring George Clooney and Matt Damon), attention focused on the return of many art objects to their original homes after their looting by Nazi troops. Even more attention arose after the story of the Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren, about the return of the 1907 Klimt painting in 2006.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt, 1907
Neue Galerie, NYC

The Nazis were hardly the first victorious troops to steal great cultural artifacts from subjugated societies. It certainly was usual, even expected, to find treasures from a conquered people in the hands of their conquerors. But one might say Napoleon Bonaparte helped himself to more than had been usual when he confiscated many works of art in Europe and Egypt.

Madonna di San Gerolamo
Galeria Nazionale Parma

Napoleon’s troops, or perhaps the future emperor himself, confiscated this treasured work of Antonio Allegri, known as Correggio, during the French occupation of Italy.  Returned to Italy in 1815, it can be seen in Parma’s national gallery. It was originally painted as an altarpiece in the 1520’s for a chapel in Parma’s Church of Sant’Antonio Abate.

Venus d’Medici, Uffizzi Gallery
This famous work in marble, often copied, was found in Rome, a Hellenistic copy of a Greek statue of Aphrodite in the tradition of Praxiteles. After reservations about its possible lewdness, one of the popes sent it to Florence where it was admired by many travelers and written about by Lord Byron in Childe Harolde. In 1800, the statue was shipped to Palermo to protect it from Napoleon. But eventually the French pounced, and it was indeed taken to Paris. It was returned to Florence in December, 1815 and can be viewed today in the Uffizzi Gallery. Reproductions can be seen in many museums, including the Boston Athenaeum, the Getty Museum in California, and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Laocoon and His Sons
The group of tortured marble figures was discovered in Rome in 1506 and may have been once praised by Pliny the Elder.  It portrays the Trojan priest Laocoon and his two sons attacked by sea monsters. Pope Julian II called on Michelangelo to assess the statue and it was soon placed on public view at the Vatican. The French took it to Paris for display at the Louvre in 1798.  It was returned to Rome in 1816 and can be seen today in the Vatican Museum.
Military Review at the Tuileries, 1810, by Hippolyte Bellange.

Napoleon’s troops also seized the Quadriga, four horses from the front of St. Mark’s in Venice and brought it to Paris where it was placed on top pf the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, built to commemorate Napoleon’s triumphs.

Basilica of San Marco, Venice

 The Venetians had stolen the figures from Istanbul in the 13th century; nevertheless, the Quadriga was returned to Venice in 1815.

Replicas atop St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice

Due to the effects of air pollution on the statue, the “original” is now in a museum. A replica replaces it on St. Mark’s.

Basilica of San Marco horses inside in the museum

The title Quadriga is derived form the Latin words for ‘four’ and ‘yoke’. As originally sculpted by the or the Greeks, statues of four horses drawing a chariot with a triumphal figure, usually depicting peace, can frequently be found on monumental arches.

Peace riding in a triumphal chariot, by Francois-Joseph Bosio (1828).

Above is the Quadriga created for the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, Paris, to replace the Venetian version. This one was “in honor” of the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy to France after Napoleon.

The Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

The famous Brandenburg Gate, built in the reign of Frederick William of Prussia, was constructed by Carl Gotthard Langhans from 1788 to 1791. Shortly thereafter it was crowned by a Quadriga  of Victory by Johann Gottfried Schadow. In 1806, the Quadriga was stolen by Napoleon and taken to Paris. It was returned by Prussian General Gebhard von Blucher in 1814 after Napoleon’s first exile.The Iron Cross added to the sculpture’s laurel wreath of peace was an object of contention at various points in time, removed by East Germany but restored after German reunification in 1990.

close-up of Brandenburg Gate Quadriga
For a further account of the return of looted art and the men responsible, click here
Napoleon’s goal had been to bring the best of all of Europe’s artwork to Paris and make the Louvre their home, a collection of the very best in one place — of Napoleon’s choosing.
Descent from the Cross by Rembrandt
Many works were not returned. Descent from the Cross was taken from the German State of Hesse-Kessel in 1806 by the French, purchased by Empress Josephine, who sold it to the Tsar. It remains in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Some of the items commandeered by Napoleon’s men ended up in England. One of the most important is the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum, London. It was found near the city of Rosetta in Egypt in 1799 by French soldiers and turned over to some of the many scholars accompanying the French forces. After the British defeat of the French in Egypt in 1801, the stone and other artifacts were sent to London and have been displayed in the British Museum since 1802. Plaster casts of the stone were made and distributed to scholars. On the stone is inscribed a decree in three languages which became the key to unlocking the translation of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. 

Rosetta Stone

London’s Wellington Museum in Apsley House is the home of many fine paintings stolen from museums in Madrid by Napoleon’s brother and puppet king of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte.  When the Duke of Wellington’s forces overran the French troops at the Battle of Vitoria in June, 1813, Joseph escaped but left behind his baggage train containing hundreds of artworks he had looted. The Duke rescued the works and sent them to London for preservation from the war in the Peninsula.  Under the care of the Duke’s brother, the works were preserved and re-framed. After the war when Spanish King Ferdinand VII was restored to his throne, Wellington offered to return the works to Madrid. Instead, in thanks for the Duke’s efforts on behalf of the Spanish people, the King gave a significant number of the artworks to the Duke. Many now hang in Apsley House, London. Here are a few examples.

The Agony in the Garden, c.1524
by Antonio Allegri, known as Correggio, 1489-1534
The Water-Seller of Seville, 1618-22
by Diego Velazquez,  (1599-1660)

Three canvasses formerly attributed to Titian’s studio were recently cleaned and conserved, revealing them to be the actual work of Titian himself.  For a guide to these three paintings, click here.

Titian’s Mistress, 1550-60
Danae, 1551-53
Tiziano Vecelli, known as Titian, 1490-1576, Venetian School
One painting the Louvre got to keep was a huge altarpiece from Venice. 
The Wedding at Cana, 1563, by Paolo Veronese
Designed for the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, Napoleon had this vast work shipped to Paris in 1797 and hung in a special gallery in the Louvre. It was considered too large to be returned, so it can be seen there today.
Many of the world’s great museums are replete with art stolen, confiscated, even purchased from distant cultures.  Conquering forces still loot, though some try to protect great artworks.  Some only destroy.  Ars longa, vita brevis.


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