by Judge Arthur Tompkins, ARCA Lecturer
The horses remained in Venice, in a variety of locations but mostly on the Basilica, for nearly 600 years, until Napoleon arrived in 1797.
The fall of Venice followed on from the plundering of Rome. There was no frontal attack, but rather Napoleon engineered the rebellion of a number of subject cities on the mainland against their Venetian masters, and after a year of negotiations, on Friday 12 May 1797 the Venetian Great Council voted itself into extinction, and the French occupied the city. This brought to an end 1070 years of independence, and left Venice and its dependencies and territories, under the terms of the Treaty of Campo Formio, signed in October 1797, divided between France and Austria. But the Austrians did not arrive to take control of the city until January 1798. In the meantime the French looted the city. As Chamberlain notes, curiously for the legalistic French, there was a four day lacuna between the dissolution of the Great Council, and the signing of the Treaty of Milan on 16 May 1797, which allowed for the removal of art treasures .
In any event, The Four Horses were a primary target of the French. Chamberlain describes the scene:
[On] a day in December 1797, six weeks after the signing of the Treaty of Campo Formio, they were lowered from the front of the basilica. Again, as in Rome, French commissioners had to go to work protected by French bayonets from the anger of an Italian mob. The contemporary illustrations of the event point up, accidently or inescapably, the contrast between the serenity of the beautiful creatures, and the restlessness of the crowd, as they made their way in stately procession across the piazza.
Most of the art work plundered from Rome and elsewhere in Italy was assembled in the Tuscan port of Livorno (in English, Leghorn), there to join the marshalling of plunder from all over Italy, and from thence (largely at the Vatican’s cost) to Paris, arriving in 1798.
“[A group of savants] were horrified at the idea of an unceremonious arrival in the capital of precious relics from Rome arriving like coal barges and unloaded at the Quai de Louvre like boxes of soap,”
So a parade on the Champ de Mars (where, nearly a century later, Eiffel was to build his Tower) was hastily arranged:
The etching done by Berthault showing the parade, and clearly shows the horses, amongst the camels, lions and the like. The procession was headed by a banner reading:
“La Grece les ceda; Roma les a perdus; leur sort changea deux fois, il ne changera plus”.
Which translates, (more or less) to:
“The Greeks gave them up, Rome lost them; their fate has changed twice, it will not change again”.
Quynn lists some of the contents of the procession:
In these crates there travelled to Paris such treasures as the Apollo Belvedere, the Medici Venus, the Discobolus, the Dying Gladiator, the Laocoon, and sixty or more other pieces of sculpture from the Vatican and Capitoline museums and other collections. Nine paintings by Raphael, two famous Corregios, mineral and natural history collections, the bears of Bern, animals from zoos, and valuable manuscripts including those from the Vatican dated prior to AD 900.”
France’s actions were not without their critics: the sculptor Canova, later, as we shall see, actively and successfully to represent Pope Pius VII in obtaining the return to the Vatican of much of the plundered sculpture, archives and manuscripts; sardonically addressed Napoleon:
“May your Majesty at least leave some things in Italy. These ancient monuments form a chain which cannot ever be transported.”
Quatremere de Quincy similarly protested in a pamphlet and subsequently a petition signed by 8 Academy members and 43 artists, arguing that arts and sciences were a common republic, so that no one country had the right to assert an exclusive claim to the heritage of art, or to divide it up unilaterally, and any country that did so should suffer the reproach:
“ ... of barbarity and ignorance for thus damaging the common property.”
But such lone voices were few and seldom heard, and the torrent of art continued to pour into Paris – mostly to the Louvre, but in time to provincial museums elsewhere in France as well.
The Four Horses were initially housed in Les Invalides, then placed on gate piers guarding the entrance to the Tuileries, before finally being placed atop the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, also in the Tuileries.
But compared to their centuries of repose in Venice, their stay in Paris was over in the blink of an eye. A mere 17 years after their removal from Venice, and following Napoleon’s final exile to St Helena after the defeat at Waterloo in June 1815, Austrian and English engineers lowered them from the arch on 17 October 1815, under guard by Austrian soldiers .
Two months later they were loaded onto barges and ferried across the lagoon and back to their old home.
There they stood until air pollution forced their removal, in the early 1980s, to their present, much less lofty, position just inside the Basilica.