The Spanish War of Independence: the Greatest Destruction of Artistic Heritage

This article is illustrated with a photo of “La cocina de la Ángeles”, a famous painting by Murillo currently on display in the Louvre in Paris, which was stolen by Marshal Soult.

Plunder and pillage

And they came from a revolution to revolutionise the world, supposedly to turn upside down the standards of society, rights, science, art and citizenship. And the small Corsican guy arrived, the paradoxical fruit of a popular uprising, to set himself up as emperor and ready to dominate the whole of Europe with an iron fist. And he arrived in Spain, crafty and cunning, after having plundered its fleet at Trafalgar, after taking advantage of the army for his conquering purposes, after deceiving everyone with the pantomime of Portugal, after clinging to the stupidity and felony of Fernando VII and after all the shameful pacts of Bayonne. He arrived with good intentions but with his homework done and precise instructions: to plunder and plunder to the maximum.

Why are there so many Spanish works of art scattered around the world? Why are there paintings by Murillo in the Louvre or other public or private art galleries in Russia, Austria or the USA? Why is there an important collection of Spanish paintings in the Wellington Museum in the UK? Has anyone ever wondered? It is all due to the actions of the Napoleonic army in the Spanish War of Independence and above all to the thefts committed by its officers.

The greatest destruction of artistic heritage

Some people may disagree, but it has been proven that the War of Independence was the period in the history of Spain where the greatest destruction of artistic heritage took place, above the Carlist Wars, above the Civil War of 1936, above the different confrontations that took place on the peninsula. The French arrived to take everything they could carry off.

The Napoleonic troops, apart from those first deceptive moments, roamed the Spanish territory at will, setting up their barracks, powder magazines and stables in all kinds of buildings, regardless of whether they were palaces, churches or convents. And of course, they plundered everything they could and more. Why did this happen? Napoleon was not in the habit of paying his soldiers so they used to steal during his conquests: jewellery, liturgical objects, candelabra and other small objects that they “took” when they occupy the different buildings. The generals and marshals aimed higher and targeted the magnificent Spanish pictorial and sculptural catalogue. That is nothing.

Hundreds of examples of plunder and despoilment can be studied in the chronicles, each city will have its own history but we can highlight those of Valdepeñas, Tudela or Cordoba. The latter ignited the flame of revenge in the Spanish people who were preparing to confront the French imperial eagles. This confrontation took place in Bailén, where the most powerful army in the world suffered its first defeat.

The orders of the French commanders

It seems that all the French commanders had orders to seize the works of art in Spain, by reputed authors of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. And they arrived knowing what they were doing, knowing what they were coming for, as they were carrying a copy of the Historical Dictionary, published in 1800 and the work of Juan Agustín Ceán Bermúdez, one of the most erudite and illustrious professors of fine arts. There are innumerable examples of this treacherous behaviour, but I would like to quote José María Ascencio’s account of the theft of the painting “The Last Judgement” from the convent of Santa Isabel in Seville in 1886 in his book on the painter Pacheco:

“The individual in charge of collecting it entered the church carrying in his hand a volume of the Historical Dictionary of Ceán Bermúdez and, after examining the painting and reading the description at the same time, went up to the altar and cut the canvas with a penknife.”

Thus, leaving aside a multitude of details, it can be affirmed that the French troops were mainly responsible for the cultural despoilment suffered by Spain throughout its history. An example of this is the attitude of José Bonaparte on arriving in Madrid, who packed up hundreds of works of art, including the jewels of the Spanish Crown, and sent them to France (this is the reason why the current Royal House has no crown or official jewels). And while they were waiting for the voyage, these works of art were piled up in poor condition in the convents of the Rosary and San Francisco.

The infamous Marshal Soult

Certainly, all the commanders of the Napoleonic army practised the theft and plundering of works of art, but the one who came out on top was Marshal Nicolas Jean de Dieu Soult, general-in-chief of the Napoleonic army in Andalusia. The same marshal who, after ordering the general withdrawal from the region, gave orders to destroy the fortresses, most of which were located in emblematic buildings.

This insatiable military man was a lover of Sevillian painting, particularly that of Murillo, and managed to assemble one of the largest private art collections in history at the expense of the Andalusians. In total, it is estimated that, from the convents and churches of Seville alone, he and his men took more than 180 paintings by early Spanish masters, including 32 by Murillo, 28 by Zurbarán, 25 by Alonso Cano, 8 by Valdés Leal, 5 by Herrera “El Viejo”, 3 by Rubens and 2 by Roelas.

Soult the infamous and evil, the one who did not hesitate to threaten the owners of the works of art with death in order to get them to hand them over and who managed to kepe in the Alcázar of Seville almost a thousand paintings from all over Andalusia (fortunately only 300 left Spain) and who, when he retired to France in 1813, was leading a huge caravan of works of art bound for his château in Paris. These stolen paintings were never returned to Spain, as the marshal himself fought to prevent their return. Subsequently, his heirs auctioned the works to the highest bidder and scattered them all over Europe.

Partial return

As agreed at the Congress of Vienna, the stolen paintings and objects were partially returned from 1816 onwards, but many, especially those stolen by officers and senior commanders, vanished on the return journey. Other works of art from Spain were lost because they were used as bargaining chips to thank for favours or because of Fernando VII’s mismanagement.

El aguador de Sevilla by Velazquez

El aguador de Sevilla by Velazquez

It turns out that when José Bonaparte (Pepe Botella or Pepe the bottle) was fleeing to France with a baggage of more than 100 works by great masters of Spanish painting, among other things (1500 carriages full of gold, silver, coins, jewellery, gold and silverware and other magnificent works of art), his convoy was captured by the Duke of Wellington. The latter wrote to Fernando VII asking him for instructions on how to move these works of art to their places of origin (the silver and jewellery was stolen by the soldiers during the night). The monarch, showing little interest or appreciation for art, thought it appropriate, as thanks for the services rendered, that he should keep the collection of paintings, which the Englishman did not refuse and was amazed at the value of the booty, including Velázquez’s “The Water Carrier of Seville”.

The cases of La Alhambra and the corporal of diasabled.

This was the respect the French showed for Spanish heritage. We can highlight the opposite case of the military commander of Granada, Horace Sebastiani, an enlightened man who was impressed by the richness of the Muslim heritage. He set up his headquarters in the Alhambra and took the opportunity to carry out a thorough restoration (it had been abandoned), recovering roofs, gardens, ponds and rooms. The Alhambra was even given a fixed budget for its conservation. It is surprising that in the desperate flight of the Napoleonic army, Soult ordered the destruction of the Nasrid fortress. What is certain and true is that part of the structure that makes up the Alhambra complex was destroyed (ten towers in the upper part, the Tower of the Seven Floors, the Water Tower and the Tower of Cape Carrera) and, according to oral tradition, the invalid corporal José García, at the cost of his own life, blocked the trail of gunpowder with his own body and prevented further destruction.

And with the flight, this destructive zeal intensified. Countless palaces, churches, convents, castles (such as that of the Counts of Benavente), cathedrals (such as that of Burgos), pantheons (such as that of the Monastery of Poblet in Aragon), tombs (such as that of the Great Captain in Granada itself, which was looted, plundered and desecrated to mock the memory of the great soldier) and hundreds of buildings of great heritage value were unscrupulously destroyed.

As we can see, except for the Alhambra, the French plundered and stole innumerable works of art and damaged Spanish heritage to the point of satiety. But I don’t want to end this article without giving a notable blow to the English, who were Spain’s ancestral enemies and took advantage of their passage to damage and attack Spanish infrastructures in order to benefit England. Especially Wellington, in the Royal Porcelain Factory of Buen Retiro (known internationally for its quality). After the Battle of the Retiro on 13 August 1812, it was blown to smithereens by British order, when it had already been vacated. Some authors maintain that it was a premeditated act to destroy competition but this is more debatable as, at that time, there was no great production or industrialisation in Spain.

At this time I am reminded of what my father-in-law always tells me about Spain’s current heritage: “After the different wars, confrontations and conflicts, after the theft, destruction and plundering, Spain still has an immense heritage, what it would not have if nothing had happened!”

Sources

This post was translated from:

Mena, J.C. (2021) ‘La Guerra de la Independencia española: la mayor Destrucción de Patrimonio Artístico’, 13 January. Available at: https://www.sonrisasenelcamino.es/la-guerra-de-la-independencia-espanola-la-mayor-destruccion-de-patrimonio-artistico/ (Accessed: 2 May 2021).

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