Plundering Beauty: A History of Art Crime during War
by Arthur Tompkins
(Lund Humphries, 2018)
192 pp. with colour illustrations
This elegant book by the New Zealand judge Arthur Tompkins offers a broad and useful overview of the history of looting of cultural artefacts by soldiers and officials during wartime. Tompkins knows the material well, having been an instructor on the topic for the Association for Research into Crimes against Art during the summer course run each year in Amelia, Italy. The high publication standards of the publisher Lund Humphries do not disappoint, bringing to life in magnificent colour reproduction a number of the works Tompkins describes, pieces that have witnessed much trauma and forced displacement during their long and peripatetic existence. Plundering Beauty: A History of Art Crime during War is a valuable addition to any collection on the topic, offering a pleasing balance of historical exposition and visual delight. That said--and this is a point we shall return to at the end--its value does not reside in being a work of original scholarship. For such contributions, the inquisitive reader will have to look to other titles, as set out below.
The history begins with the Romans and their senseless rapine of conquered towns and territories. Corinth, Syracuse and Jerusalem were badly looted by Rome during the centuries of its dominance over the Mediterranean. The pillage in each case led to a 'Triumph' in the Forum, a lavish parade of sculptures and other relics from the defeated enemies. But what is perhaps less well known--and for the inclusion of which we must thank the author--is the fairly pronounced criticism of these actions that came from the literary establishment of the time. Cicero in his prosecution of Verres lambasted the Roman magistrate for having "plundered Sicilian communities, stripped bare Sicilian homes, and pillaged Sicilian temples" (1) and even more interesting were the views of Polybius, Livy and Sallust. The last of these thought pillage revealed a weakness in the Roman soldier, and he blamed it on the fact that the army had been sent, in a sense, too far from the regiment and routines of Rome. It was in far-off Asia then that:
an army of the Roman people first learned ... to admire statues, paintings, and chased vases, to steal them from the private houses and public places, to pillage shrines, and to desecrate everything, both sacred and profane. (2) The view one gets from these authors is not that looting should necessarily be stopped for the sake of the subjugated people, but rather for the sake of Rome itself. However, their views seemed to have had little impact on army practice, and the looting continued unabated; conscience held no sway, it seems, on the commanders of Rome's great military victories.
Tompkins goes on to provide the reader with accounts of two examples of the most wanton military plunder in European history prior to the twentieth century, the Fourth Crusade and the Thirty Years' War, each earning its own sad chapter in the book. What is helpful about the author's approach is that he does not presume an in-depth historical knowledge by the reader of these episodes, or any other, and so he provides the necessary background at each stage. We thus learn how the Fourth Crusade, which would lead to the most frightful pillage of Constantinople in 1204, was launched and careened its way to the Byzantine capital en route to the Holy Land. The four bronze horses (originally Greek and, as Tompkins...