posted on 21/01/22
These six talks explore the history of plunder and loot through six different sets of objects – a pair of obelisks, a temple treasure, a set of bronzes horses, an altarpiece, a series of palace reliefs and a tapestry. Through the series we travel from the Nineveh of Ashurbanipal to the Perugia of Perugino, from the Rome of Augustus to the Paris of Napoleon; encounter a blind doge of Venice, a French Revolutionary commissioner and an English explorer of the Ottoman-Persian border; and meet various vandals, crusaders, revolutionaries and resistance fighters. Greed and ruthlessness, it is true, loom large in this narrative, but so too do daring, decency, idealism and learning.
They take place every Thursday from 9th June to 14th July at 4.30pm (GMT +1) and, including Q&A, will probably last an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (8th September 2022).
Rome remains a city of obelisks. Two of the earliest to be transported to the city were brought by Augustus from the city of Heliopolis in 10/9 BCE, some of the treasure of Pharaonic Egypt he and his supporters seized following his victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. The history of these two obelisks – now in Piazza del Popolo and outside the Palazzo Montecitorio – is also a history of Rome. Renaissance popes have also employed these and other obelisks to adorn the city and impress their rule on its denizens.
The Menorah was the seven-headed lamp commissioned by Moses to burn before the Tabernacle. The lamp remains sacred to the Jewish people and is represented on the flag of modern Israel. The Temple Menorah was seized by three sets of conquerors over the course of half a millennium and passed from Jerusalem to Rome, to Carthage, to Constantinople and once more to Jerusalem. It has long since vanished, but its fortunes constitute one of the most remarkable narratives of plunder and loot from the ancient world.
The world of antiquity was a world of bronze statues, but very few survive in tact. The set of four bronze horses at the Basilica di San Marco in Venice are the only survivors of an ancient quadriga. When they were made, what sort of monument they decorated and where this monument was located remain difficult to fix with confidence. What is beyond doubt is that they were seized by the Venetians following their sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Doge Enrico Dandolo, 97 years old and blind, a key actor in this tragic episode.
Perugino’s Decemviri Altarpiece, made in the 1490s, was one of the great treasures of the celebrated Palazzo dei Priori in Perugia. Its division 300 years later was the direct result of Napoleon Bonaparte’s victorious campaign in northern Italy for the French Revolutionary government. The story of the altarpiece, transported to Paris along with many other precious spoils of war seized from the Italian states, has its fair share of villains. It also has its hero, Antonio Canova, whose talents and energy proved critical in securing the restoration of its main panel to Italy in the years after Waterloo.
Austen Henry Layard was neither a looter nor a plunderer. His archaeological treasures were acquired neither in the wake of military victory or violence. His successful excavations were down to his wide reading, command of languages and good relations with the élites of Ottoman Iraq. The palace reliefs of the Assyrian ruler, Ashurbanipal, Layard uncovered at Ninevah are among the finest of the ancient world. Nevertheless, his export of these reliefs to London casts important light on the changing processes of acquisition and appropriation during the 19th century, and how political influence, diplomatic and financial power came to count more than military might.
The Bayeux Tapestry remains one of the most vivid witnesses to the conquest of a kingdom, exercising a powerful spell on those keen to celebrate narratives of war and triumph. Among these was the SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler. For Himmler, as for others who shared his world view, the Bayeux Tapestry was synonymous with the timeless martial qualities of the Germanic people. Only the code-breaking triumphs of Bletchley, the intervention of the Resistance and some good luck prevented the tapestry from being shipped to the Reich in the days before the fall of Paris – or being destroyed along the way.
Lecturer in medieval history at the University of East Anglia. He was taught at the Universities of London, Cambridge, and Oxford, and was a research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford. He specialises in the period, 700–1200, and publishes on western kings, secular élites and their records. He is a keen believer in the value of exploring and understanding the architectural fabric, material culture and landscapes of the past.
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