Monday, January 6, 2014

Napoleon Under Glass: What Price History? Part 1

History is written by the victors, as the old saying goes, but these days it's the fingerprints of corporate sponsors or charitable (and by no means politically-innocent) foundations that can often be found all over its presentation. And because, as another old saying puts it, beggars can't be choosers, these fingerprints are particularly evident in places like Venice, where its cash-strapped museums go begging hat-in-hand for funds they have no hope of ever getting from the staggering State.

Combine the two old saws above and what you perhaps end up with is something like the following: History is written these days by those who can afford to foot the bill. And what you also end up with are, more concretely, recent alterations in the Museo Correr--and the Napoleon under glass you see above.

I'd read about such a depiction of Napoleon well before I saw the one in the Museo Correr, though in what book about Venice I can't remember. A larger-than-life-sized sculpture like this one was intended, according to that book, to be the centerpiece of the Ala Napoleonica that the French emperor built at the western end of Piazza San Marco, after tearing down what by many accounts was one of the city's most beautiful small churches (about which you can read here: If all had gone as planned, the two series of sculpted Roman emperors extending to the left and and right of a very noticeable gap atop the center of the building's entablature would have culminated in a heroic figure of just this sort--larger than all the rest of them, naturally.

But wait, I imagine more recent visitors to Venice interrupting, what center-most gap in the Ala Napoleonica are you talking about?

For it's been years since the entire facade of the Museo Correr has been visible. First, because of necessary maintenance hidden behind a large billboard whose revenue was supposed to offset its cost. Then, because the Museo decided it could no longer get by without the revenue from the billboard, even long after the work behind it was done.

The now permanent billboard on the front of Museo Correr

It's rather a strange decision by an institution whose very mission is to protect and preserve the cultural heritage of the city. For while the Piazza in past centuries was typically filled with a much broader (and often sleazier) array of commercial activity than it is today, it was never Times Square--nor a bill-boarded American interstate highway. Whether the billboard features some diamond-bedecked soft-lit blonde sipping champagne or cut-rate blouses sold in a mainland mall, it always strikes me (and many vocal others) as out of place. (Though a 2010 designer clothing campaign encouraging consumers to "BE STUPID" did seem unintentionally apt.)

In any case, in the many years before the billboard, and before a certain purchase by the Comité Français pour la Sauvegarde de la Venise we'll get to just below, people would sometimes ask Venetians whatever became of the Napoleon statue sculpted for the Ala Napoleonica. And according to that writer on Venice whose name and much of whose book I've forgotten--and who may have been wrong about the intended location of such a sculpture, as the one currently in the Museo Correr was displayed from 1811 to 1814 in the the Piazzetta, not on the Ala Napoleonica--locals would shrug and say with conspicuous disingenuity that Oh, it was around someplace, safe and sound, no doubt [wink, wink], but no one could quite remember where.

In other words, wherever that old sculpture of Napoleon had once been displayed (or intended to be displayed), one could assume it had been quite thoroughly disposed of long ago.

But that doesn't seem to have been the case. In a chapter entitled "Restoration Comedies" of their very interesting book Venice, The Tourist Maze: A Cultural Critique of the World's Most Touristed City, Robert C. Davis and Garry R. Marvin examine the complicated relationship between the city and people of Venice and their numerous international benefactors (or self-proclaimed saviors). For all the good that organizations such as Venice in Peril and Save Venice and the like may do, their priorities are not always perfectly in sync with those of Venetians themselves. And sometimes, as in the case of the Napoleon sculpture behind glass in the Museo Correr, they're rather dramatically in conflict. Davis and Marvin write:
When it comes to ruffling local sensibilities, no one has yet outdone the Comité Français, which recently [the book was published in 2004] followed its francophile enthusiasms a bit too forcefully by buying (at Sotheby's) and restoring a neoclassical statue of Napoleon by nineteenth-century sculptor Domenico Banti, with the intention of donating the work to the Museo Correr. Not surprisingly, when word got out, there was a storm of protest among Venetians, who were outraged that the man who had once boasted that he would be "Attila the Hun to Venice" should be so honored by the city whose thousand years of independence he had personally extinguished. Letters and emails poured into the newspapers, and conferences were held, denouncing Napoleon as a "highwayman," a "barbarian," and a "tyrant." "It wouldn't come to anyone's mind," growled one commentator, "to present a statue of Hitler to the Ghetto," and some of the antibonapartisti darkly warned that "they can mobilize the army to bring [the statue] to Venice, but they can't garrison it night and day: we will smash it down with sledgehammers.
As it turned out, a garrison wasn't needed, just a separate niche entirely enclosed in what, given the tenor of the above threats, must be protective glass of some sort. At the very least, one would imagine it could withstand the impact of, say, the fire extinguisher situated beside it.

In any case, this is the reason why one can walk freely around the far more valuable sculptures of Canova displayed out in the open at Museo Correr, but can't get close to Banti's sycophantic piece.

Of course, Napoleon in his role of Attila played an important role in the history of Venice, but the question of how this role should be displayed and contextualized in a Venetian museum is not an easy one to answer. But I'll write a little more about it, and about the restoration of the Austrian Imperial Apartments in the Museo Correr--also "promoted and financed," according to the museum's website, by the very same Comité Francais pour la Sauvegarde de la Venise--in my next post.


  1. Great post, Sig. Nonloso. I'm looking forward to hearing more from you about the Palazzo Reale restoration project.

  2. Napoleon, what a crazy person he must have been. Thanks for this bite of history, I look forward to reading more.

    As I was waiting in line to renew my passport I started reading L'Italo Americano and to my surprise I saw your piece on Sandro and the carretto. Too bad the photos were in black and white, the shiny red would have made the photos even cuter.

    1. Wow, Laura, you're an Italo-American reader! There seem to be a surprising number of them for a dual-language publication, especially considering how many Italian immigrants seemed willing to sacrifice their language (as my parents did) to assimilate.

      Napoleon meant so many different things to different people, and still does, I guess. I prefer Garibaldi, naturally.