Fine art of plunder: the foul history of all the Louvre’s loot
How did the finest collection of art yet assembled end up in Paris? Its history is not a pretty picture
One of the more disconcerting pictures in the Louvre is Hubert Robert’s Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie in Ruins. The 1796 work depicts the museum itself as a classical desolation, recalling the Palace of Domitian on the Palatine Hill in Rome: the entire roof of the Grande Galerie has been shorn off to reveal open sky, while the ground is littered with fallen debris, and peasants wander among shattered antique torsos.
But in the centre of the picture is a puzzling sight: a young artist sketches the Apollo Belvedere, among the finest sculptures to survive the fall of Rome and one of the most famous works in the Vatican Museums. Why should it appear in a scene of Paris, even one as fanciful as this?
Robert is acknowledging the fact that, in the 1790s, the Louvre was becoming, by fair means and foul, the greatest repository of art, ancient and modern, that the world had seen or would ever see again. Most of these works would ultimately be returned, but for now the French army was overrunning Europe, pillaging as it went and conveying its ill-gotten booty directly into the galleries of the Louvre. It had started with the Revolution. By the middle of the 1790s, more than 13,000 works had already been seized from the collections of 93 French aristocrats...