Plunder, war, and the Horses of San Marco
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Plunder, war, and the Horses of San Marco

August 31, 2019


[music] For thousands of years
during times of war, art has been seized by the victor and used as trophies of their victory. -The idea
of “to the victor go the spoils” this goes back thousands of years. -One of the most
fascinating examples of this are the four horses that have come to be known
as the Horses of San Marco, and these horses served as war booty
at least twice, maybe even three times. -And this makes them a great case study for talking about works of art
seized during times of war. -Let’s go see them. We’re in the Basilica of Saint Mark
in Venice. The church is itself a jewel, but it contains real treasures as well. -Up on the second floor now
are four horses. So these were in Constantinople, and when they were brought here
to Venice, they were put outside this Cathedral, but today copies are there. -The detail on the horses is magnificent, the understanding of the horses movement. -You can see their veins, their muscles rippling under their skin. -And look at the way
that their heads turn in relationship to each other. Originally they would have been gilded; they would have gleamed with gold.
-And pulled a chariot. -And from the beginning,
they were associated with the idea of conquest, of empire,
of the Emperor, of victory. Let’s just quickly review
the story of the horses. We think that the horses may go all the way back
to ancient Greece. In fact there’s a tradition
that states that they were produced by the famous Hellenistic
sculptor Lysippos. Now we don’t know that for certain, but it’s a story that’s long been
attached to these horses. Well and that’s because
of their incredible beauty that one immediately associated them with one of the greatest ancient
Greek Hellenistic sculptors. They may also date
from a slightly later period from ancient Rome. -By the early 13th century however, we’re on firmer footing. We know that the horses
were in Constantinople until at least 1204. This was a year
that Western European crusaders attacked the city of Constantinople. -The crusaders intended
to liberate Jerusalem, but instead they attacked Christians
in Constantinople in order to pay off a debt
to the Venetians. -And brought the horses
as well as a lot of other treasure back to Venice. -Now, the horses and remained in Venice for more than 500 years. -We’re in Paris at the Musée du Louvre looking at a triumphal arch
that was built by Napoleon Bonaparte. And if we look closely
at that triumphal arch, we’ll see copies
of the horses of San Marco. Now, we should say
that the original horses once stood here. And we’ll get to that story. -In the late 18th century, a young French general,
Napoleon Bonaparte, was leading brilliant military campaigns
across Europe. -Now this is shortly
after the French Revolution when France has overturned the monarchy, and so we have a new period emerging. The French Revolutionary Army took unprecedented amounts
of art and manuscripts from across Europe. -Napoleon even brought experts with him on his military campaigns to help him identify works of art that he could bring back to Paris. And the idea
was to make Paris the new Rome, the cultural capital of Europe. -And the seizing of artwork was actually written into the treaties that the defeated rulers
were forced to sign with Napoleon. -And so there was this veneer
of legality, but what Napoleon was doing was what victorious generals
had always done which is the idea
of “to the victor go the spoils.” As the conquering general, you have a right,
traditionally, to spoils, to the artwork of the defeated country. -And while this was a common practice
since ancient times, there have been important voices
against looting or at least profligate looting, for example, Cicero. -But what emerges during this period is a new understanding of works of art and their place as booty during wartime. -And one of the reasons for that is that Napoleon
seized the most important art in Europe for one location. For the museum
we’re standing in, the Louvre, he sees, for example,
the Laocöon, the Dying Gaul, some of the most famous paintings, Ruben’s Descent from the Cross. -The Apollo Belvedere, which was seen as perhaps the greatest ancient sculpture
of all time. Keep in mind
that what Napoleon intended to do was to create an encyclopedic museum, a museum where works of art from all the nations of Europe
could be seen. But he was also intending
that this museum be a statement of his military brilliance and a testament
to the brilliance and power of France. -Having the most important works of art from Europe in your capital made you the leader of Europe. We may not think of works of art as having that kind of power anymore, but they did
in the 18th and 19th century. Let’s recapture for a moment
the tremendous excitement that existed in Paris when the works of art
finally made their way to the Louvre. A grand procession into the city of Paris was organized to celebrate this triumph. Interestingly,
the only works of art to be uncreated and to be displayed in this procession were the horses of San Marco. -And to celebrate his military victories, Napoleon commissioned the very arch we’re standing and looking at
from the Louvre. And he had the horses from San Marco
placed on top of this arch, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. -Of course, seizing works of art created enormous despair
throughout Europe, but even in France,
there were dissenting voices. There was a petition
from several dozen artists including the great painter
Jacques-Louis David protesting Napoleon’s seizure
of works of art. Now, of course,
Napoleon is defeated in 1815, and immediately the countries that had works of art
stolen from them began to demand their return. Now, it’s not traditional to send back works of art
in this case. -The Duke of Wellington, the general who was most responsible
for defeating Napoleon, came from Great Britain which had had no works of art
stolen by France, but he looked on the great treasures that had been amassed at the Louvre, and decided
to do something extraordinary. He decided to return the works
to their countries of origin. -He could have said that those works now belong to Britain, and in fact
there were members of the government who considered
at least selecting some of them to bring back to England, but in the end about half of them were returned their country of origin. -And Wellington
even took the extraordinary step of paying for the cost
of repatriating works to the Vatican since the Pope didn’t have the money
on hand to do it himself. -What’s really fascinating is that since not all of the works
were returned, some of them
are here still in the Louvre today. For example,
works by artists like Cimabue and Giotto. -So this is a really good reminder that when we walk through museums, there are really complicated
and often fascinating stories behind the way
that a work of art came to a museum. And it’s interesting to think about what a museum decides to display on the plaque beside the painting, and what it decides to leave off. Now we want to end with a quote
from an architectural theorist who really began to think through
the legal and ethical issues of removing works of art
from their place of origin. He wrote
“The museum which is Rome “is also composed fully
as much of places, “of sites, of mountains, of quarries, “of ancient roads,
of the placing of ruined towers, “of geographical relationships, “of the inner connections
of all of these objects to each other, “of memories, of local traditions, “of still prevailing customs, “of parallels and comparisons which can only be made
in the country itself.” That’s such a lovely argument for repatriating works of art
to their country of origin. And the horses of San Marco
were repatriated, but they were repatriated back to Venice where they had been for hundreds of years even if it wasn’t their original home. [music]

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  1. When the horses were in Constantinople they supposedly stood atop the starting gates of the chariot racing stadium, The Hippodrome.

  2. Great lecture. You should or could have mentioned that this then – Napoleon's ceasing of art that was internationally renowned for the purpose of increasing the cultural clout of France – as the dawn of the age of "soft power" along side "hard power" in Joseph Nye's sense of the terms.

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