Wednesday, November 28, 2007 11/28/07-The Louvre

In today's excerpt--Napoleon establishes a museum at the Louvre in Paris in 1803. Previously a royal palace, the Louvre is now the most visited and one of the oldest, largest, and most famous art galleries and museums in the world:

"Most important [of Napoleon's rebuilding projects] was the establishment in the Louvre, from 1803 onwards, of Europe's biggest art gallery, to provide a permanent home for the many works of art he had stolen from the countries he had conquered and occupied.

"To run this Musee Napoleon for him, the Emperor found one of those extraordinary geniuses ... Vivant Denon. ... The notion of a gallery open to the public stemmed from the historically much maligned Louis XVI. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the royal collections had been kept for the private delectation of the court and of privileged visitors. ... It was Louis XVI himself who suggested reuniting everything that the crown possessed of 'beauty in painting and sculpture' under the name of 'museum' (a concept borrowed from England). Explained Denon, 'The French Republic, by its force, the superiority of its light and its artists, is the only country in the world which could provide an inviolable asylum to these masterpieces.'

"Napoleon took a great interest--amounting to interference--in the museum named after him. On his return from [the Battle of] Jena in September 1806, he was already complaining about the queues on a Saturday afternoon--with the result that the hours on Saturday and Sunday were extended. He was also horrified to see the galleries with smoking stoves to keep the gardiens [gallery attendants] warm: 'Get them out ... they will end up burning my conquests!' Equally shocking was the lack of public lavatories, leading to the misuse of the galleries by the unhappy gardiens, who were paid a menial wage, one-tenth of what Denon received. It was hardly surprising that in 1810 thieves broke in to make off with some priceless tapestries.

"In September 1802, the Medici Venus--'The glory of Florence'--arrived at the Louvre after a journey of ten months. Rumbling across Europe, the heavy pieces of looted sculpture required special carriages drawn by up to fifteen pairs of oxen. The following March came the first convoy of loot from Naples. Napoleon's greed seems to have known no bounds; in 1810 he declared to a deeply embarrassed Canova, the great Florentine sculptor, 'Here are the principal works of art; only missing is the Farnese Hercules, but we shall have that also.' Deeply shocked, Canova replied, 'Let your Majesty at least leave something in Italy!' It was perhaps amazing that not more was ruined on the journey; describing in 1809 the looting of twenty masterpieces from Spain, Denon reported ominously, 'There has been more damage, due to negligence in the packing, of the first dispatch of Italian primitives,' The arrivals from Italy continued until the end of the Empire."

[Many were returned after the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo]

Alistair Horne, Seven Ages of Paris, Pan Books, Copyright 2002 by Alistair Horne, pp. 205-206.


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