Whatever you can say about Napoleon, the reputation and glory of the Louvre was substantially enhanced by his theft of art from conquered lands, booty ransacked and pillaged at gunpoint. As Bonaparte advanced through Italy, the museum’s collection of both antique and Renaissance art was expanded almost beyond belief. Under the terms of armistices and treaties, thousands of pieces were selected by French experts from the galleries of Parma, Modena, Milan, Bologna, Perugia, and above all, Rome and Venice, and then transported triumphantly to Paris.
When Bonaparte moved on to Egypt a stream of Middle Eastern antiquities also commenced to pour into the Louvre. Comparatively little of this artistic loot was ever returned, and to accommodate it all, as well as to make the palace a residence worthy of his imperial person, Napoleon conceived of the idea of an art palace as a central element in a sweeping new city plan where a museum could feed the public treasures which they were now convinced they had the right to enjoy. Napoleon revived the “grand dessein” with the vigor and boldness characteristic of all his undertakings. The Emperor’s architects, Percier and Fontaine, embarked on a program of construction such as had not been seen at the Louvre since the days of Perrault and Le Vau.
Of course, Waterloo prevented the Emperor from completing the design in its entirety and when the Empire collapsed, the famous horses of San Marco were returned to Venice, a definitive end of Napoleon as art director.
…On the other hand, he brought back slavery in 1802, eight years after the Revolution had abolished it. In Haiti he was allegedly guilty of genocide, gassing rebellious islanders. He also showed terrible cruelty towards a potential claimant to the French throne, who was arrested and summarily shot.
Above all, he embarked on nothing less than the conquest of Europe by force of arms, installing relatives on various European thrones. His megalomaniac Empire-building was only brought to a close at the Battle of Waterloo, where the Duke of Wellington won a victory that changed the course of history.
A country which can still partly revere such a man surely has a problem. We would probably be wrong to equate Napoleon with 20th century totalitarian monsters such as Hitler and Stalin, but he was nonetheless a new sort of terrifying leader whose destructive will is memorably described by Tolstoy in his monumental War And Peace.
If we were unfortunate enough to have a Napoleon Bonaparte lurking in our past, I can’t imagine that many of us would smile on a plan to erect a theme park in his name. Yves Jégo, the chief brain behind the scheme, may simply be a misguided maverick, but the idea could not fly without the support of President Sarkozy.