Napoleon’s booty—Perugino’s (gorgeous) Decemviri Altarpiece

A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris in front of Perugino, Madonna and Child with Sts Laurence, Louis of Toulouse, Ercolanus and Constance (Decemviri Altarpiece), 1495–96, tempera on wood, 193 x 165 cm (Vatican Museums)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the National Museum of Umbria in Perugia, looking at a special exhibition that has united two works of art that are normally separated but which were meant to be together. This is an altarpiece by Perugino, the great artist from Perugia.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:21] The painting was taken by Napoleon when he invaded northern Italy. And so this is an extraordinary event, these objects have not been together since.

Dr. Harris: [0:30] Napoleon’s armies confiscated thousands of works of art in the territories that he conquered.

Dr. Zucker: [0:36] Now, he did this in order to, as the revolutionaries said, “liberate works of art from oppressive regimes,” that is, from nobles and kings and monasteries and churches, and bring it on to what they considered the free soil of post-revolutionary France.

[0:53] The very best works would end up at the Louvre, and works not selected were sold, warehoused, or simply lost. And so it was in the early 19th century that many works that had been in their original locations were dislocated and ended up in museums across Europe and the United States.

[1:11] After Napoleon was defeated, the decision was made that the British would not take the French booty, but instead, Wellington said, “These works must be returned to their original locations.” But not all works ended up where they were supposed to go.

Dr. Harris: [1:26] The pope put the sculptor Canova in charge of returning the works of art to Italy. This painting ended up in the Vatican Museums, but of course, the frame and the top image were here in Perugia. For the last more than 200 years, they’ve been separated, thanks to Napoleon.

Dr. Zucker: [1:46] Perugia, of course, was dismayed that the painting was in the Vatican and asked for its return. It wasn’t until this year, 2019, and only for a special loan show, that this painting and frame and the upper painting have been reunited.

[2:00] After the exhibition in Perugia ends, the ensemble will travel to the Vatican for a second showing.

Dr. Harris: [2:06] In Perugia, we have the great fortune of seeing this work in the location for which it was made. This is an important space for the city of Perugia, the place of the seat of government.

Dr. Zucker: [2:19] Perhaps even more important, specifically in a room that is a chapel. In fact, we had to wait a few minutes before we could come into this room because a Mass was being said here.

Dr. Harris: [2:28] Around the walls here, we see fresco scenes that are important to the civic life, the religious life, of Perugia and its governing council of 10. In fact, this is known as the “Decemviri Altarpiece,” the “Altarpiece of 10 men.” The original commission was intended to feature the 10 men, but the commission went through various phases, and this is what we have in the end.

Dr. Zucker: [2:53] The circumstances of this painting remind us of the importance of place.

Dr. Harris: [2:58] There’s a civic pride that’s associated with Perugino, with this altarpiece, in this important space, in this town hall, in the center of Perugia. We often think about Perugino as the teacher of the great artist Raphael, but Perugino was such an amazing artist in his own right.

Dr. Zucker: [3:19] Perugino has created an ideal and yet completely convincing space. He’s given us this elaborate classicizing throne, on which sits the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child surrounded by four local saints, with just a hint of this expansive landscape and this glorious open sky.

Dr. Harris: [3:39] There’s that Renaissance interest in figures who are very real, who are three-dimensional, who have weight, where the drapery describes the form of the body underneath and the figures are in correct proportion. This fascinating thing that happens in the Renaissance of locating the transcendent in the earthly.

Dr. Zucker: [3:58] It’s so clear that Raphael paid attention to Perugino. There’s a softness, a sweetness, a quietness that exists in Perugino’s work that Raphael adopts.

Dr. Harris: [4:09] What we have together in this altarpiece is the Madonna enthroned in heaven, a sacra conversazione, these saints brought together around the Virgin and Child. Then above that, Christ standing in his tomb, displaying the wounds of the Crucifixion, the promise of salvation, of life after death.

[4:30] Napoleon’s confiscation of works of art forever changed the cultural landscape of Europe.

[4:38] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Napoleon’s booty—Perugino’s (gorgeous) Decemviri Altarpiece," in Smarthistory, June 16, 2020, accessed June 21, 2024,