In a couple recent podcasts and in a tweet, the mathematician and public intellectual Eric Weinstein said that the ‘idealism of every age is usually the cover story of its thefts.’ He expanded on that concept for criticism of the contemporary political and cultural landscape (referring to the far-left extreme as ‘Wokistan’ and the far-right extreme as ‘MAGAstan’). He furthermore traces the dynamic back to such ideas as ‘manifest destiny’ in the nineteenth century. I would like to take it back further. The beginning of modern era is 1789 — the year the cataclysmic French Revolution began. The very notions of the political ‘left’ and ‘right’ became part of the political vocabulary (referring to where the deputies of the new national assembly sat). Commonly-held notions of hereditary government and privilege were shaken to their core.
A dilapidated, decadent, and anachronistic system was torn down but the idealism of the revolutionaries ran out of steam. From shaky governments to the Reign of Terror (whose supporters were the original ‘terrorists’), France was unstable and its leaders were vomiting up the worst elements of the underside of the very ideals they claimed to champion. When the revolution spread beyond France’s borders, the revolutionary ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ slogan proved to be a mere facade for militarism, nationalism, and looting the like of which Europe would not see again until the dark days of the Second World War. Italy, the Cradle of the Renaissance, became a prime victim of French Revolutionary extremism and looting. The worst excesses were committed under the orders of the general, and soon to be dictator of France, Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Aggressor — France in the Revolutionary Decade of the 1790s
“Bonaparte treated Venice like the lady who mistakes servitude for love, who kisses the hand that beats her. First he neglected her, then he insulted her, then he enjoyed himself deceiving her and mocking her, finally he threw her under his feet.”
-Ippolito Nievo, from ‘Confessions of an Italian’ (1867)
French Revolutionary zeal poured into the various states of the Italian Peninsula in the 1790s in the form of an invading army. General Napoleon Bonaparte quickly became the most important figure on the French side during these years. The zealous French army, hyped up on the destructive force of nationalism unleashed by the French Revolution, marched to the tune of one of the most bloodthirsty national anthems ever composed — ‘La Marseillaise.’
“Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us, tyranny’s
Bloody standard is raised, (repeat)
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!
To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Water our furrows!”
-beginning of ‘La Marseillaise,’ written by French army officer Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in 1792
The Setting of Tragedy — Italian Peninsula of 1789
Italy was the Cradle of the Renaissance and the location of the greatest cultural development in the history of Europe, from roughly 1300 to 1580. The Peninsula was divided into several different countries. The former republics of Northern Italy were swallowed up by larger empires or became monarchies themselves (like Florence). Venice, still a republic, was in a state of elegant decline in the eighteenth century. With the shifting of major trade routes away from the Mediterranean (with ‘Mediterranean’ coming from the Latin for ‘center of the Earth’), much of the wealth dried up. The eighteenth century was one giant question mark for the peninsula, increasingly dominated by foreign royal families. The glory days of Renaissance culture were a thing of the past, though still maintained (and maintain!) preeminence in the arts, as the achievements of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael remain unsurpassed as the greatest masters of the arts who ever lived.
While the golden ages for various Italian states were long gone, the treasures from those earlier times were to be found everywhere throughout the peninsula — cultural brilliance in the form of some of the greatest paintings, sculptures, drawings, buildings, and gardens ever designed.
Invasion and Industrial-Style Looting
Napoleon Bonaparte rose to prominence in the French military due to his Italian Campaign. The French saw themselves as liberators for the entire continent of Europe but acted much more like thugs. For example, Leonardo da Vinci’s work suffered at the hands of French soldiers in the 1790s just as it had in the 1490s. Invading French forces used his model for the statue of the Sforza horse for target practice after they overthrew the duke of Milan in the 1490s. In the 1790s, the French turned the Milanese refectory with the famous Last Supper mural painting in it into a stable. French revolutionary soldiers threw rocks at the painting and tried to gouge the apostles’ eyes out.
This early, initial violence towards clerical art was displaced by a top-down interest in seizing the highest quality art and selling the rest to raise money for France. Politically, Napoleon was interested in creating puppet/client states for the nascent French Republic (the French did this in various other places, such as Switzerland and Westphalia). Militarily, Napoleon sought to expand the power and influence of France. And, culturally, Napoleon wanted to bring the greatest works of art from across Europe to France. The Louvre, a former royal palace, became a public art museum during the French Revolution. The museum’s first director was Vivant Denon (1747–1825), a member of Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition. While his career began out of a genuine interest in archaeology and art, it devolved into a passion for looting other countries and cultures for the benefit of the French Government.
The dubious history of the Louvre, even before the revolution, reveals that Denon’s actions were consistent with the actions of previous art collectors — the French kings. Since the Middle Ages, French monarchs got their art treasures through plunder (common across cultures and time periods — mighty warlords seizing what they can from vanquished foes). The difference with the French Governments of the 1790s and early 1800s is that they claimed the mantle of Enlightenment and claimed to stand for the highest political virtues.
Like the Nazis 140 years later, the French looted art on an industrial scale. Italy’s great artworks in captive cities were inventoried and those of the highest quality by well-known masters (like Raphael) were sent to France. Just as Hitler would later want his planned art museum in Linz to contain the greatest works of art in Europe, Napoleon sought to turn the Louvre into such a repository. After his plundering of Italy, he boasted of the amount taken.
“We will now have all that is beautiful in Italy except for a few objects in Turin and Naples.” -Napoleon
From the Horses of Saint Mark in Venice to the Borghese Collection of Rome, a vast quantity of Italy’s artistic treasures found their way to Paris at the hands of the Bonaparte family and the French military at the turn of the nineteenth century. Even the territories of the Pope were looted. Numerous works of art and a portion of the Vatican Archives were transported to Paris.
The foundation for much of this looting was not the battles themselves but the peace terms imposed on the Italians in the late-1790s. The looting of the Papal States was made legal by the terms of the 1797 Treaty of Tolentino. The Treaty of Campo Formio (also from 1797) required Italian cities to hand over works of art to the French.
The French reign of terror over the continent — constant wars due to Napoleon’s delusional ambitions — ended between a rock and a hard place (Britain and Russia). The British triumphed against the French again and again on the battlefield and, more importantly, in international trade. The Russians, interested in maintaining a balance of power, sought to allow Prussia and Austria to rebuild after being defeated by the French. A group of allied powers formed to oppose the French. Napoleon was decisively defeated by the Russian winter and the forests of Germany. In 1814, he abdicated and the victorious allies met in Vienna to plan a postwar Europe. Napoleon escaped from his exile, regained power in 1815, was defeated again (at Waterloo), and exiled again. The peace settlement which came out of Vienna included provisions for the restitution of artworks looted by the French during the period from the 1790s through end of the Napoleonic Wars. Many major pieces were returned, quite a few were not returned.
Wrapping it all up
The first image in this article is by the caricaturist George Cruikshank (1792–1878) — a political cartoon criticizing the French looters (also juxtaposing French nationalist idolatry with anti-clerical notions of Catholic idolatry). The French portrayed themselves as the inheritors of ancient Greek and Roman civilization as well as the rightful owners of the works of art they stole from Italy. The torch of Enlightenment turned out to be a mere painting on the facade of despotism.
The year 1789 really does mark the beginning of the modern age, if one can attach such things to a textbook date like that. Modernity was forged in the cauldron of antagonisms, anxieties, thrusts, and ruptures of the years from 1789 into the early nineteenth century. The vain and superficial attempt to impose Enlightenment-style rationality on the irrational, antifragile human psyche absolutely shattered the staid world of early modern Europe. We are the inheritors of this rupture and the liberties and perils which it has created. This article looked at a vary particular example of a kind of idealism being the cover story of a very physical theft — one among many which could be told, a narrative of that which is modern.