Martin Gayford

Fine Arts Special: The rights and wrongs of conquest

France gave back artefacts looted by Napoleon. So what’s different today? asks Martin Gayford

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France gave back artefacts looted by Napoleon. So what’s different today? asks Martin Gayford

‘Give us back our marbles’ is the cry. Passionate demands are made for the return of famous works of ancient sculpture. In response, there is equally heated resistance. Sending them back would be an offence against civilisation, it would break up a great collection. Only in a mighty museum in a sophisticated metropolis can such works truly make sense. Their surrender would be an aesthetic tragedy and — worse — national humiliation. Of course, it all sounds extremely, indeed wearyingly, familiar.

But this is not another account of the eternal dispute about the Elgin (or, if you prefer, Parthenon) Marbles, but a resumé of the debates that preceded the breaking-up of the Musée Napoléon in 1815. It’s just that the arguments deployed were almost exactly the same — and, ominously for the BM and its supporters, 191 years ago it was the let’s-not-lose-our-marbles brigade who lost.

Now almost forgotten, the Musée Napoléon briefly contained almost all the works of art then most praised and valued by European connoisseurs — rather as if the EU had the ‘Night Watch’, the ‘Mona Lisa’, Damien’s Shark and Tracey’s Bed all removed to a gigantic gallery in Brussels. It is an episode revived and retold in an entertaining and instructive new book, The Horse of St Mark’s by Charles Freeman (Little, Brown, £16.99).

In fact, that well-known chariot team was just about the only notable work not put in the Louvre, where the Emperor’s museum was housed. The four horses were placed on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. But the Apollo Belvedere from the Vatican, Rubens’s ‘Descent From the Cross’ removed from Antwerp Cathedral, Raphael’s ‘St Cecilia’, the ‘Venus de’Medici’ and all the rest were in the Louvre. And that, in the general French view, was where they ought to remain.

All this loot had been removed from its owners by right of conquest. ‘The fate of products of genius,’ as an official declaration on the subject put it, ‘is to belong to the people who shine successively on earth by arms and by wisdom, and to follow always the wagons of the victors.’ Furthermore, obviously, Paris — being the most advanced spot on the globe — was the natural home of the world’s finest works of art.

‘The French Republic, by its strength, superiority of its enlightenment and its artists, is the only country in the world which can give a safe home to these masterpieces.’ (Compare the claim made on behalf of the BM over the last century and more: only in Bloomsbury can such treasures remain secure.) But even after Gallic arms had ceased to conquer all, it was still felt — especially in Paris — that all this stuff was really seen to best advantage beside the Seine.

This was partly a reflection of the belief — universal among curators — that once an item has entered a collection it must never, ever leave. The collection itself becomes a unity which it is rank philistinism to break up. Within it, the works can be compared, one with another across centuries and cultures, in a way they never could be if sent back to their original homes. This was very much the view of the director of the Musée Napoléon, Vivant Denon (as it is of the BM staff and their proponents).

After Napoleon’s first surrender, and exile to Elba, the victorious allies were inclined to take the same view. Let the French keep what they’d got. This was partly on the can-of-worms principle; in a similar way it is argued these days that if the Marbles go back to Athens it will set a dangerous precedent. What next? The Mausoleum transported back to Halicarnassus? The Pergamon altar packed up and shipped from Berlin to Turkey? Better not to take the first step down that road.

In 1814 there was a worry that the works from Rome at least had been taken to Paris quite legally under the Treaty of Tolentino signed by the Pope (admittedly under duress). So, in fact, the French had just as good a title to the Apollo Belvedere as the British Museum trustees do to the carvings from the Acropolis — indeed, rather better.

The latter were, of course, bought fair and square — though rather reluctantly —from Lord Elgin. But they had been taken down from the Temple in the first place by a gross extension of the permission, or firman, originally given by the Ottoman government. The noble lord got away with it by bribing the relevant official, then retrospectively — as a result of more bribery and diplomatic pressure — getting a change in the terms. This way of proceeding has been presented as an example of free trade at work. But you might as well claim that the management of Enron was a model of capitalist enterprise at its best.

Only after Waterloo was it decided that the French should be punished. Wellington argued that it would teach them ‘a moral lesson’ if they were forced to disgorge all their artistic loot. Even so, Denon fought a fierce rearguard action to hang on to as much as he could. Some were claimed to be too fragile to travel — and there he often won his point. That is the only reason why Veronese’s ‘Marriage at Cana’ is still in the Salon Carré of the Louvre and not in the refectory of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, for which it was originally painted and where it would doubtless look much better. But most of the prize exhibits of the museum had to go back. There was fury, despair and lamentation among Parisian art lovers.

But in 1796, when the whole affair had begun, the French antiquarian Quatremère de Quincy had argued strongly that the antiquities of Rome should be left in Rome. That city, he pointed out with wisdom and eloquence, is more than so many transportable artefacts. ‘It is also composed fully as much of places, of sites, of mountains, of quarries, of ancient roads, of the placing of ruined towers...of the inner connections of all these objects to each other...of parallels and comparisons that can only be made in the country itself.’ He was supported by 47 well-known artists, including David.

Over two centuries later, no one would deny that he was right. And if the Elgin Marbles, through some amazing volte-face, were returned to Athens today, that would soon seem just as natural and inevitable as the restitution of Napoleon’s marbles to Rome. Of course, museum collections should not all be broken up. But certain works make much more sense in the place for which they were originally intended. The history of Musée Napoléon has a useful moral still.