Sunday, 1 October 2017

When Venice's Loot Came Back from France - Canova, Hayez & Cicognara at the Galleria Accademia

Horse of St. Mark's plaster copy - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) When Napoleon forced the Venetian Republic to surrender on May 12, 1797 and ended the 1000-year-old realm of La Serenissima, his soldiers hauled a lot of loot back to France -- the most cherished being the four bronze horses on the outside of Saint Mark's Basilica, dating from antiquity. In 1205, Venice herself had plundered the four horses from Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire and Christian civilization. Napoleon hoisted the horses up on the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in Paris to commemorate his victories.

The French swiped many other precious works of art, and hacked to pieces five thousand winged lions, the symbol of St. Mark, Venice's evangelist. They also nabbed the prized Lion of San Marco that was on the column in Piazza San Marco.


In celebration of the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Gallerie dell'Accademia in 1817, much of the plundered art has been gathered together in an outstanding exhibition entitled Canova, Hayez, Cicognara - The Ultimate Glory of Venice, curated by Paola Marini, Fernando Mazzocca and Roberto De Feo. The show offers not only a chance to see some exceptional works of art, but also an opportunity to learn some history about the tumultuous time.

One quibble with the exhibit is that although the history might be familiar to Europeans whose ancestors were used to their lives being disrupted at the will of emperors, kings and queens -- many of whom were related to one another -- those in the English-speaking world might feel a bit bewildered. The timeline is in both Italian and English, as are the descriptions of the art, but the excellent catalogue published by Marsilio/Electa is only in Italian. And at the time of this writing, there is no information about the exhibition on the Accademia's website in either Italian or English, so I'm going to attempt to guide you through it.

Self-portrait by Antonio Hayez - Photo courtesy Accademia
To greatly simplify a complex timeline, after Napoleon's conquest, Venice was put under Austrian domination from October 1797 until December 1805, when the Treaty of Pressburg thrust it again under the French. Napoleon created the Kingdom of Italy -- in addition to the one under the rule of the Holy Roman Empire, in existence since 800AD -- titling himself the "Emperor of the French and King of Italy." The French scattered Venice's heritage willy-nilly, suppressing convents and parishes, and dispersing works of art, hauling much of it off to the Musée Napoleon in Paris -- aka the Louvre.

Museum headquarters for Napoleon's new Italian kingdom was established in Milan at the Pincoteca di Brera, the main building of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera.

During all this commotion, in 1807 a commission was set up in Venice to conserve works of art. Venice already had an Academy of Fine Arts, which had been founded on September 24, 1750. Napoleon changed the name of the Veneta Academia di Pittura, Scultura e Architettura to the Accademia Reale di Belle Arti, or the "royal academy of fine arts" and decreed that it be reorganized along the lines of the art academies in Milan and Bologna, creating three national academies in the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy. Weeks earlier, Alvise Almorò Pisani had been appointed president of the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice.

The headquarters of the Academy was moved from the Fonteghetto della Farina, next to where Harry's Bar is now and where flour was sold, to its present location at Carità at the foot of the Accademia bridge, which had been the Scuola Grande della Carità and the Church of Santa Maria della Carità, but was one of the religious complexes that had been targeted by Napoleon and disbanded. Napoleon himself showed up in Venice in November 1807 and stayed through December to visit his handiwork.

Then Alvise Pisani, the president of the Academy, died on February 12, 1808, and one of the heroes of our story, Count Leopoldo Cicognara, a theoretician, scholar and historian of international fame, was appointed president. Cicognara was great friends with the neoclassical sculptor, Antonio Canova, who was considered the pre-eminent living artist, celebrated through all of Europe, and who had already been commissioned by Napoleon.


Rinaldo e Armida by Franceso Hayez (1812-13) Photo courtesy Accademia
The Academy decided to give its top students a three-year scholarship to study art in Rome under the tutelage of Canova. The talented young Venetian painter Francesco Hayez was one of the first winners. Canova and Cicognara were determined to cultivate Hayez into an artist who would renew Italian painting and bring Italy back to its ancient glory -- hence the name of the exhibition, Canova, Hayez, Cicognara - L'ultima gloria di Venezia.

Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815, and then the Habsburg Emperor Franz I of Austria stepped up to the plate.

Things moved swiftly after that. Emperor Franz I demanded that the Louvre give back the plundered artworks in his territories. Canova was instrumental in getting most of Venice's stuff returned, and wrote to Cicognara on October 2, 1815 that "I have the consolation of telling you that our Venetian paintings have been returned and are already being crated for Italy."

One of the next things the Emperor did was give Venice back her beloved horses, which arrived on December 13, 1815 in Piazza San Marco with much pomp and circumstance, to the joy of the Venetians.

Re-situating Ceremony - Horses on the Pronaos of St. Mark's Basilica by Vincenzo Chilone (1815) Photo: Cat Bauer
On March 22, 1816, six crates of art from Paris arrived at the Accademia di Belle Art, all but one piece in good condition. In April, Emperor Franz I arrived with his daughter, Marie Louise, for Holy Week, and to watch the prized Lion of San Marco, which had been damaged, be placed, fully restored, back up on its column in Piazza San Marco. The Accademia then put on a show so the public could view the returned artworks. When it was over, all the works with known original positions went back to their places, and the Academy kept the rest.

In August, the bequest of Girolamo Ascanio Molin (a renowned Venetian Senator, writer and historian, with a precious collection of assorted goodies -- but that's another story) arrived in the Accademia. Then the crafty Cicognara managed to transport Titian's Assunta, considered the most beautiful painting in the world, from the Frari Basilica to the Accademia.

When I heard this, I thought, What? I found one of the curators, Roberto De Feo, during the inauguration, and tried to have a conversation with him even though all of Venice seemed to be there, and we were constantly interrupted. De Feo said Cicognara had moved the painting to protect it from the "humidity." I said that after living in Venice for nearly 20 years, and writing about her culture, I didn't believe that story for one second. (Needless to say, the Assunta has since been placed back up on the high altar inside the Frari, where she belongs.)

Ideal Head of Helen by Canova (1811) Photo: Cat Bauer
In November, Lord Byron, the greatest living poet, showed up on the scene, and added some brilliance, romance, scandal and a lot of wild gossip to a city already throbbing with excitement. He would move into Palazzo Mocenigo on the Grand Canal along with his with 14 servants, two monkeys, a fox and two mastiff dogs. Ah, those were the days!  One of the rooms of the current exhibition is dedicated to Lord Byron, and includes Canova's sculpture of the Ideal Head of Helen, of which Byron wrote:

In this beloved marble view
Above the works and thoughts of Man
What nature could, but would not, do
And beauty and Canova can!

In June 1817, Hayez returned to Venice. Then, on August 10th, Count Cicognara inaugurated the first five rooms of the Gallerie dell'Accademia and the museum was born, while still maintaining its role as an art academy. It is this anniversary that we are celebrating today (give or take a month or two).

Polyhymnia by Canova
By this time, Emperor Franz I had married his fourth wife, Caroline Augusta of Bavaria, who was 24 years younger than he was, and he asked the Venetian provinces to pay a heavy contribution. Our wily Cicognara negotiated a deal where part of the tribute would include works by top artists and artisans in the Veneto, together with young students from the Accademia, for the new empress's rooms -- but only because he threw the magnificent statue of Polyhymnia created by Canova into the deal.

Before the works went off to Vienna, the Accademia exhibited them in the great hall, all dominated by Titian's Assunta -- which was there to ostensibly recover from the extreme humidity of the Frari at the much drier environment at the Accademia, just a couple of campi away.

The group of works were later divvied up by the heirs of the imperial family, but have been almost completely gathered together again for the first time in 200 years for the current exhibition (with the exception of Titian's Assunta:-) in a room dedicated to "The Tribute of the Venetian Provinces to the Court of Vienna."

Altogether there are more than 130 works displayed in ten thematic rooms:

1. The glorious and controversial return of the works of art requisitioned by Napoleon: the Horses of St. Mark and the Jupiter Aegis 
2. Cicognara - patron and promoter of the arts. Friendship and collaboration with Canova. Common trust in young Hayez
3. The Homage from the Venetian Provinces. An extraordinary collection of contemporary artworks for the Vienna court
4. The legacy of Giuseppe Bossi. The arrival of Leonardo and Raffaello's drawings in Venice
5. Masters and students of the Academy between Venice and Rome
6. Byron in Venice and the fascination for Helen by Canova. Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi and Giustina Renier Michiel, queens of intellectual salons
7. The myth of Canova - national glory and universal icon
8. Hayez, the true heir to Canova, creates Romanticism and leaves Venice for Milan
9. The antique molds in the collection of the Gallerie dell'Accademia
10. An interactive "hypertext" of the history of the Accademia
That is a brief summation of all the ultimate glories in store. There is much, much more to absorb when you visit the exhibition.
 
Practically every private international committee in town has also participated in this project: Venetian Heritage, Save Venice Inc., The Venice in Peril Fund, The Venice International Foundation, Friends of Venice Italy Inc. and the Comité Francais pour la Savegarde de Venice.

Canova, Hayez and Cicognara - The Ultimate Glory of Venice runs through April 2, 2018, so you've got six months to see it.  GOOD NEWS! The exhibition has been extended until July 8, 2018.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. When Napoleon forced the Venetian Republic to surrender on May 12, 1797 and ended the 1000-year-old realm of La Serenissima, his soldiers hauled a lot of loot back to France -- the most cherished being the four bronze horses on the outside of Saint Mark's Basilica, dating from antiquity. In 1205, Venice herself had plundered the four horses from Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire and Christian civilization. Napoleon hoisted the horses up on the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in Paris to commemorate his victories.

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