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Venetians plan Napoleon trial for stealing treasures and worse

Rome, Jan. 9 (Reuters): Some 200 years after conquering Venice, Napoleon Bonaparte will face trial in the lagoon city accused of stealing some of its artistic treasures and worse.

A group of Venetians is mounting a mock trial as part of a campaign to stop a statue of the French emperor going on display in a museum on St Mark’s Square, the heart of Venice.

“Yes, Napoleon played a part in the city’s history. So did (fascist dictator Benito) Mussolini. Should we have a statue of him in a museum too'” lawyer Mario d’Elia, who is organising the trial, said in a telephone interview.

The 2.5-metre white marble statue by Domenico Banti represents Napoleon bare-chested and muscular, extending his right hand imperiously and holding a globe in his left hand.

Commissioned by Venetian merchants to thank Napoleon for making the city a tax-free port, it stood on St Mark’s Square from 1811 to 1814, when Venice fell to the Austrians and it was removed to the nearby island of San Giorgio Maggiore.

Historians then lost track of the statue until it resurfaced at Sotheby’s auction house in New York last year, where it was jointly bought by a French association that raises funds for Venice and by the cultural foundation of a Venetian bank.

Their intention, approved by Venice’s municipality, was to display the work at the Correr Museum, which is dedicated to the city’s history and housed in the “Napoleonic Wing”, a structure built on St Mark’s Square on Napoleon’s orders.

“The return of this statue to Venice is justified by the fact that it is a Venetian work and that Napoleon is part of Venetian history,” said French historian Jerome Zieseniss, who heads the association that jointly bought it.

D’Elia and his partners will put Napoleon on trial in March, hoping to galvanise Venetians against the statue.

Some Venetians see Napoleon as a tyrant who robbed the city of its independence before looting it and destroying some of its architectural gems.

“It would be like putting a statue to the glory of Nelson in the Louvre Museum in Paris,” D'Elia said.

English admiral Horatio Nelson defeated the French navy in several major battles during Napoleon's time.

Zieseniss, however, said D’Elia’s views on Napoleon were shared by only a small minority of Venetians.

Napoleon did end the Republic of Venice, Zieseniss said, but it was an archaic, authoritarian city-state where only aristocrats could have a say.

In its place, he introduced modern ideas such as the equality of citizens before state and law. Yes, his troops looted artworks. But many went to museums, not private collections, in line with the ideas of the French Revolution, and most were returned later anyway, he said.

Yes, Napoleon had churches and other historic buildings destroyed. But in their place he built other structures that at the time were seen as improvements.

None of that has made an impression on D’Elia, who also has artistic objections to the statue, branding it a monstrosity.

Zieseniss defended it as “an important Venetian work” but conceded it gave too flattering a image of the ageing Napoleon.

“It is a Napoleon who has done quite a bit of body-building and who is walking determinedly towards the beach with his towel,” he said, referring to a toga the marble Napoleon wears draped around his loins and over his left arm.

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