In Venetian art, Venetian history

One needs to plunder art to found an empire! When conquering a country, you cannot be happy just to get their land, their wealth or the lives of its inhabitants. It must affect history, which therefore implies you cannot be ignorant. What would you take away from a city rich in history? Would you know what to choose?

Constantinople and the Fourth Crusade

The first ones were the Venetians. Not that looting cities had been the privilege of the early settlers of the lagoon, but the sack of Constantinople was indeed the first systematic approach in conquering and depriving a city of its historical heritage.

When Doge Enrico Dandolo’s crusaders entered the city of Constantinople on April 1204, they had not planned a sack. Or at least it looks as if it was not part of the agreement. But when it happened, it was wild and accurate. Violent and as precise as the work of a surgeon who carefully chooses what to take away.

Horses, emperors and marble

The booty of the Fourth Crusade in Constantinople was the result of an accurate choice. Marble. Marble slabs, marble columns, marble capitals, marble bas reliefs. And then statues. Four horses in gilded copper, four Tetrarchs in porphyry granite (leaving a foot behind). And eventually holy relics. Surgeon’s precision in looting symbols of ancient history and religious devotion. And the precious materials that come along, because it’s not just an object that echoes history, but also the material it is made of.

The Four Horses, St. Mark's Basilica museum in Venice

The Four Horses, St. Mark’s Basilica museum in Venice

Marble columns of St. Mark's Basilica

Marble columns of St. Mark’s Basilica

The Tetrarchs, Venice

The Tetrarchs, Venice (and the missing foot)

Leaving aside the not so irrelevant issue of how to transport the spoils from Constantinople to Venice, the next question was how to relocate them, once taken away from their original context and brought to the conquerors’ city. After Doge Enrico Dandolo’s death, the spoils of the sack ended up decorating St. Mark’s Basilica, the private chapel of the Venetian State leaders. Even if they had no religious significance, the spoils of the sack became layers of ancient Byzantine history decorating the shrine of the Evangelist.

The Tetrarchs, Venice

The Tetrarchs, Venice

Marble capitals of St. Mark's Basilica Plundered art

Marble capitals of St. Mark’s Basilica

Well, indeed. How old is the Basilica then if its decoration is older than Venice? A chronological description of a monument gets contaminated with a vintage look that mirrors power and wealth.

Napoleon Bonaparte and the Louvre Museum

Many centuries later, in 1797, it was the turn of Venice to be looted.

When Napoleon conquered Venice, that Roman (or Greek) quadriga was taken down from the terrace of the Byzantine church. Carried to Paris, it was placed on the Arch of Triumph by the Carrousel opposite the Louvre museum. And it was in the State museum in Paris that many more works of art from Venice (and Florence and Rome and more…) were eventually exhibited. The intent was to make them of public use, rather than leaving them concealed in enclosed, silent monasteries or convents.

The list of what to take from Venice to Paris was precise. Apart from the horses, the list mentioned money, ships’ equipment, 500 books and 20 works of art, including the Assumption by Titian and Doom’s Day by Tintoretto. These were eventually left in place and exchanged with the Banquet in the house of Levi by Paolo Veronese from the Dominican monastery of St. John and St. Paul.

Banquet at the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese, Accademia Gallery, Venice

Banquet at the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese, Accademia Gallery, Venice

On a later occasion, Napoleon secularised the church properties in Venice in 1807. The incredible number of 12,791 paintings stationed in the Doge’s palace. They were analysed, evaluated and chosen to be sent to the Louvre, to the Brera gallery in Milan or to the Venetian Accademia Gallery.

In Alessandro Marzo Magno’s latest book, Missione Grande Bellezza, the story is told in detail. What Napoleon took to Paris, and what his strategy was. Marzo Magno also compares and relates about Hitler and the Nazis sacking Italy. And the legal aspects of heritage appropriation.

The Monument Men and Women

A major part of Marzo Magno’s work is also dedicated to the so-called Monument Men and Women. These were the ones that struggled to save art works and bring them back to Italy after they were looted by Napoleon and Hitler. In particular, one learns about the sculptor Antonio Canova that rescued the Italian art works from the Louvre museum. In the 20th century, the intelligence agent Rodolfo Siviero did a major effort to get back heritage plundered by the Nazis during WW2.

Antonio Canova, A monument man that brought the art works back to Italy from Paris

Antonio Canova, the monument man that brought the art works back to Italy from Paris

One learns then that Hermann Göring loved nudes and placed Danae, the erotic masterpiece by Titian, on the ceiling of his bedroom. At the same time, Pasquale Rotondi’s wife, Zea Bernardini, to whom Rodolfo Pallucchini sent more than 100 paintings from Venice to be protected from the Nazis, concealed The Tempest by Giorgione under her bed. She pretended to be ill so no one would come and check.

Titian, Danae, Museo di Capodimonte in Naples

Titian, Danae, Museo di Capodimonte in Naples

The Tempest by Giorgione, Accademia Art Gallery

The Tempest by Giorgione, Accademia Art Gallery

Who does art belong to?

Sir Henry Holland (Recollections of Past Life, 1872) described the moment when the Four Horses were taken down from the Carrousel to be returned to Venice (that stole them first):

“A sullen, and at times threatening crowd, not limited to the lower classes, filled the Place du Carrousel while all this was going on. The emotion swelled into actual tumult when the Austrian engineers came in to remove the Venetian Horses.”

These words show that heritage has an exquisite political prestige and who cares if it’s the result of a violent action. 🙁 Such as when you hear the Islamic State tried to destroy the temple of Bel in Palmyra.

When I wander around our Accademia Gallery in Venice, I look at many works of art, missing their frame and their architecture context. Their fragility comes at stake. At the same time, the concept of what a museum should feature and how you can display art in a museum become crucial questions. And I am at a loss, in front of pure art, violated but exhibited for public enjoyment.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

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