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.