Napoleon’s Eye

Dominique-Vivant Denon: L'oeil de Napoléon

an exhibition at the Louvre, Paris, October 20, 1999–January 17, 2000
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Pierre Rosenberg.
Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 539 pp., e68.60 (paper)

No Tomorrow

by Vivant Denon, translated from the French by Lydia Davis, and with an introduction by Peter Brooks
New York Review Books, 63 pp., $12.95 (paper)
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Benjamin Zix: Allegorical Portrait of Vivant Denon, 1811. Denon, whom Napoleon appointed the first director of French museums, is depicted at the entrance to the Louvre’s Salle de Diane, surrounded by, among other objects, the Vendôme Column; an obelisk planned for the Pont Neuf; the elephant fountain planned for the Place de la Bastille (see page 32); and two statues of Napoleon, a bust and a seated figure (left).

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, pried off just under one half of the Parthenon frieze (some 247 feet) and added to it fifteen metopes and seventeen of the great sculptures from the east and west pediments, then shipped them to England, eventually to repose in the British Museum, where they remain as the clamor from the Greek government to return them to Athens grows ever more intense. Lord Elgin acquired a vast store of antiquities during his ambassadorship to the Sublime Porte—the Ottoman court in Constantinople—from 1799 to 1803, and after. He seems to have had some sort of a sales contract (now lost) with the Ottoman rulers of Greece (who had no interest in pagan monuments) that conferred some legitimacy on his removing sculptures from the world’s most famous temple (then a storehouse) and giving them refuge in London, where they were certainly better preserved.

But Elgin appears something of an amateur in the matter of the transshipment of artifacts from one country to another when you compare him to his French counterpart, Baron Dominique-Vivant Denon, who assumed the directorship of the Louvre—soon to be known as the Musée Napoléon—in 1802. The Louvre, as imagined by the French Revolution—it opened during the Reign of Terror—and then as realized by Denon under Napoleon, was the first encyclopedic public museum, dedicated to providing a new setting for art objects taken from their original location. They would be displayed in a way that would be instructive to a large public, as well as protective of the objects themselves.

The Louvre of this time was largely built on the systematic looting of Western Europe, and Egypt, of which Napoleon had made himself master. The acquisition of artworks was in fact stipulated in the various treaties Napoleon imposed on defeated regimes, and had all the subtlety of spoils of war. Teams of art experts dispatched from Paris followed closely in the wake of the victorious armies. The spoliation began before Denon’s directorship—the Belgian Campaign in 1794 brought in prized examples of Rubens; Napoleon’s invasion of Italy in 1796 led to the Pope’s ceding some one hundred works to France, including eighty-three universally admired sculptures from the Vatican and Capitoline museums. Denon as director was himself often on location, in Germany, Austria, Spain, and Italy, to inspect the goods.

The loot continued to arrive, and it became Denon’s task to organize, preserve, and make sense of it all. As Pierre Rosenberg,…

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