How Venice Lost Its Art
The arrival of Napoleon’s troops in Venice in 1797 instigated one of the biggest plunders in the history of art.
Pietro Edwards, the Venetian Delegate for the Selection of Fine Art Objects for the Crown, wrote, on 8 April 1808, to the Napoleonic administration in Venice that he had finally completed his list of over 7,000 paintings. Two years before, following the entry of Emperor Napoleon I’s troops into the city, he had been set the almost impossible task of cataloguing every public picture in Venice. Some would be sent to the galleries of the Empire, others would be destined for the art market.The Catholic Edwards family had emigrated from Britain to the Marche region of Italy, then part of the Papal States, because of the persecution of ‘Papists’ in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In Britain, the overtly Catholic James II had been deposed and replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary II and her Dutch husband William III. The Edwards chose to settle in Loreto, one of the most popular sites of Marian pilgrimage, in order to be able freely to practise their faith.Pietro was born there in 1744, but the family moved to Venice during the early 1750s. At the time, the lagoon city had been the capital of the Most Serene Republic for over a millennium, ruling over territories spanning the entire north-east of the Italian peninsula, as well as an overseas empire along the Adriatic Sea.After studying at the Patriarchal Seminary, Pietro Edwards joined the workshop of the artist Gaspare Diziani, where he learned restoration techniques and developed a lifelong love of the Venetian school of painting. He quickly rose to fame because of his innovative restorations and, in 1778, the Venetian Senate entrusted him with the role of Official Keeper of the Public Pictures of Venice. In this capacity, he cleaned and repaired the paintings of the Great Council Hall in the Ducal Palace, among many others. Edwards’ workshop by the Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo became an attraction for visitors to the city, impressing Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1790, one year after the start of the French Revolution.Venice becomes FrenchSeven years later, Edwards, who was at the height of his career, experienced first hand the total upheaval brought to Venice by the arrival of the Revolution. On 12 May 1797, the Doge and Great Council abdicated in the face of the invading French Armée d’Italie commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte, who had conquered the north of Italy from west to east in a campaign aimed at Austria during the War of the First Coalition. The Venetian Republic thus ceased to exist.A Provisional Municipality, a popular government based on the model of the French Directory, was set up and cannons were placed on the Rialto bridge in order to contain violent demonstrations by a populace angry at its leaders for having gone down without a fight. The turmoil and violence, however, were short-lived. On 17 May, 7,000 French soldiers entered the city.Under the occupying military’s watchful eye, the first weeks of the Municipality were characterised by a hopeful idealism instilled by a well-functioning propaganda machine: the new government officially thanked Bonaparte for having ‘liberated’ the people of Venice in the name of the Revolution and its principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. The French Revolutionary Calendar was adopted and any physical reminders of the Serenissima, namely public depictions of the Lion of Saint Mark and former doges, were destroyed. The most famous of these was a sculpted relief panel by Bartolomeo Bon, depicting Doge Francesco Foscari kneeling in front of the winged lion above the gate of the so-called Porta della Carta (1438-42). The Renaissance sculptures were eventually replaced with a copy by Luigi Ferrari in 1885.Another measure undertaken to destroy the memory of the Venetian Republic was the renaming of public spaces and buildings of the city. The Doge’s Palace became the National Palace and Saint Mark’s Square the Piazza Grande. On 4 June 1797, the square hosted the Feast of Liberty. The Doge’s insignia and robes, as well as the Golden Book, the old registry of the Venetian patriciate, were burnt. An Egyptian-style fountain of regeneration symbolised the rebirth of the Venetian people. The event was highly reminiscent of the festivals celebrated in Revolutionary France. At the Civic Theatre, the new name for La Fenice opera house, admission was free for gondoliers and workmen.The Committee for Public Instruction, one of eight which made up the Municipality, was in charge not only of these measures – introduced to spread the ideals of the Revolution to the Venetian people – but also oversaw the public artworks throughout the city. It decided that Pietro Edwards should keep his former position as inspector of paintings. Although there was continuity in his employment, Edwards would soon be confronted with something entirely new.Art attackAs commander-in-chief of the French army in Italy, Napoleon Bonaparte had developed an intense interest in the peninsula’s artistic patrimony from his first victories there in 1796. He recognised the propaganda value in bringing the most famous artworks from areas he conquered all across Europe, and beyond, to Paris. To this end, Bonaparte ordered experts from the French Arts Commission to follow shortly behind him as his victorious troops swept east across northern Italy. Sometimes they arrived in a town only two days after its conquest, ready to select whichever artistic and scientific objects had been demanded by the invaders during the peace settlements.In the case of Venice, the peace treaty of 16 May 1797 decreed that 20 paintings and 500 books and manuscripts should be ceded to France. In late June, the Committee for Public Instruction assigned Edwards to assist the French commissioners, who had by then arrived, in choosing, removing and transporting the paintings. For this he was provided with a free pass into several of the city’s most important buildings.The choice of paintings reflects the taste of the time. They show, for example, that the most popular artist was Paolo Veronese, who was greatly appreciated across Europe during the neoclassical period. The moving and shipping of his impressively large banquet scenes, such as The Wedding at Cana (1563), measuring almost 70 square metres, and Feast in the House of Levi (1573), measuring almost 80 square metres, from the refectories of San Giorgio Maggiore and Santi Giovanni e Paolo respectively, further contributed to the reputation of the logistical prowess of Bonaparte’s army. There is also evidence, however, of Edwards convincing the commissioners to leave some artworks in Venice: Tintoretto’s Last Judgment (1560-62), from the Madonna dell’Orto, for example, was saved because it was not deemed fit for travel owing to its state of conservation and the sheer size of the panel (roughly 15×6 metres) – canvasses like those by Veronese could at least be taken off their frame and rolled up.After a difficult journey across a war-torn continent, the Third Convoy, which included countless objects not only from Venice but also from Rome, arrived in Paris in the summer of 1798, just in time for the Festival of Liberty, held in honour of the fourth anniversary of the end of the Terror. On their entrance into Paris the carts were decorated with garlands and tricolores, bands were playing and cavalry and politicians proudly marched alongside them. The political and propaganda value of this event can be best recognised in the description attached to the cart of the Horses of San Marco, which were the only items taken out of their packaging so they could be visible to all: ‘Horses transported from Corinth to Rome, and from Rome to Constantinople to Venice, and from Venice to France. They are finally on free soil.’ Revolutionary France had liberated the Horses, and all art, from a state of slavery.The Horses, however, had not been claimed under any treaty, but as part of widespread looting committed by French troops in Venice during the second half of 1797. This happened after Napoleon had signed the Treaty of Campo Formio with Austria in October of that year. The peace settlement ended the War of the First Coalition and victorious France ceded the Venetian Provinces to the Austrian Empire in return for the Austrian Netherlands and Lombardy. As the physical handover of Venice to Austrian soldiers did not take place until January 1798, the French were left with ample time and opportunity for plunder.Venice becomes French, againNapoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French on 2 December 1804 and King of Italy the following May. He installed his adopted stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais, as viceroy in Milan to govern the satellite Kingdom of Italy. War continued almost incessantly across Europe throughout this time, culminating in Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz in December 1805 to end the War of the Third Coalition. The Treaty of Pressburg later that month returned Venice and its former territories to the French, who, in January 1806, triumphantly entered the lagoon city for the second time in less than ten years. As everywhere in the Empire, French laws and regulations – including the Code Napoléon, the French monetary system and the Concordat with Pope Pius VII – were introduced in Venice and its provinces, which were now part of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy.Despite his eight-year imperial reign and Venice’s strategic importance as an Adriatic port, Napoleon only visited as emperor once, in the late autumn of 1807, being otherwise preoccupied and continuously on the move because of relentless warfare right up to his defeat and exile in 1814.Napoleon’s entry into Venice must have appeared to the Venetians as if the ceremony and pageantry of the Serenissima had returned: an ephemeral triumphal arch by the architect Giannantonio Selva on the Grand Canal welcomed a lavish procession of boats into the city and countless regattas, balls, concerts, plays and operas were put on in the emperor’s honour during his ten days there. Napoleon inspected the city and its infrastructure thoroughly, signing his so-called ‘Law for Venice’, aimed at modernising the city, before his departure.Houses of the HolyThe law included a parish reform directed at reducing the number of parishes from 70 to 40 in order to reorganise and simplify the Venetian Church. This was carried out in 1808 and, in 1810, the parishes were decreased again to 30, fewer than half their original number. Religious orders, in particular those of a contemplative nature, were viewed with suspicion. A law of 28 July 1806 decreed the closure of smaller and ‘unproductive’ religious houses, which resulted in the dissolution of 36 convents and monasteries in Venice alone.These closures were moderate, however, compared with the general suppression of religious orders announced on 25 April 1810: this affected all religious corporations, congregations, communities and associations – another 33 houses in Venice – except for institutions dedicated to education or curing the sick. The vast majority of all clergy was thus abolished and sent home to their families with just a small pension provided. In May, the abolishment of confraternities, called scuole in Venice, followed.All these now obsolete religious buildings housed a vast number of artworks and liturgical furnishings, which were immediately appropriated by the regime as state property. What to do with them became a matter of urgency, not only to protect them from trespassers and physical damage, but also because many of the edifices were already being transformed for other uses. A prominent example is the Scuola Grande di San Marco: a military clinic then and still the hospital of Venice today. While liturgical objects such as reliquaries and candelabras were easily moved in order to be melted down for their gold, silver and precious stones, painted panels and canvasses were much more difficult to deal with.In the early summer of 1806 Pietro Edwards was again identified as the most suitable man, this time for the job of cataloguing and organising all public paintings then extant in the city. After the Venetian Republic, the Municipality and the Austrian Empire, Napoleon’s Kingdom of Italy was the fourth completely different political administration Edwards had worked for. He completed this mammoth task only two years later, apologising to his superiors that he had not been able to realise it in a timelier manner, or with more precision. By 1811, he had inventoried several thousand more paintings, ultimately arriving at a list of 12,791 artworks.Godless artAbout a tenth of these pictures were allocated to the Napoleonic Empire by Edwards, who had now been given the official title of Delegate for the Selection of Fine Art Objects for the Crown. The very best paintings were sent to the Italian Kingdom’s capital of Milan to be exhibited at the newly instituted Brera Galleries. The museum still houses a large number of artworks of the Venetian school.The vast majority of pictures, though, were moved to suppressed buildings, which had been transformed into depots. In 1807, for example, around 200 paintings were stored in the former confraternity of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista and Edwards and his colleagues were worried about their state of conservation, owing to rain damage sustained by the building.Public auctions were organised and their catalogues published, but they were rarely successful because the art market was completely saturated. Furthermore, warfare and the blockades of Venice did not create the best economic environment for the sale of artworks. It is impossible to estimate exactly how many paintings perished, rotting away in humid warehouses for decades to come.In February 1807, a vice-regal decree constituted the new Galleries of the Venetian Academy of Fine Arts and, in line with Enlightenment ideals, its president, Leopoldo Cicognara, secretary Antonio Diedo and Edwards worked tirelessly to secure a comprehensive collection. They soon realised, however, that the most important and representative works of the Venetian school had been removed from the city and had to be replaced by paintings from religious buildings that had not been suppressed.The most famous example is Titian’s Assunta (1518), from Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, which remained in the Accademia until the First World War, after which it was returned to the church. A painting by Giuseppe Borsato shows the masterpiece in the galleries. It epitomises the paradigm shift undergone during the Napoleonic period: artworks were being placed in museums and judged for their didactic and historical worth, rather than their religious meaning and function.For centuries, art had been commissioned in order to glorify and worship God. The pictorial cycles and decorative programmes created for this purpose in Venice, as elsewhere, were broken up and destroyed during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. Art, no matter what its iconography, became a source of profit, power and prestige. At the same time, Enlightenment ideas and their encyclopedic aims focused on the creation of a canon. Art was liberated and became readily available to be viewed in galleries by the public.Complicit in plunderDuring the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic period, local art experts like Pietro Edwards found themselves complicit in one of history’s most systematic art plunders. The Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova was shocked by the amount of artworks and chaos he encountered at the Louvre when he was sent there by Pope Pius VII in 1815 to reclaim what had been taken.After the Republic of Venice had fallen to Bonaparte’s army, looted works of art served to glorify the achievements of the French Revolution, which had ‘liberated’ European art and culture. The Napoleonic suppressions of a decade later left such an overwhelming amount of artworks homeless that their allocation to imperial museums, or sale on the art market, could not even remotely be managed in its totality. Two centuries later it is simply impossible to imagine or quantify it.In 1863, Franz Lieber, a Prussian-born survivor of the Battle of Waterloo, was commissioned to draw up the so-called Lieber Code for Union Forces in the American Civil War. It included the first legal recognition of cultural property and the need for its protection, and demonstrates how the Napoleonic experience began a process which led inevitably to the concept of the inviolability of artistic heritage.In the end, only about half the Italian artworks were returned after Napoleon’s final exile in 1815.Nora Gietz has lived in Venice and Padua for the past decade researching Venice’s Napoleonic period.