This is how Napoleon stole and sold the jewels of Spain to finance his wars

Queen María Luisa de Parma lived her last years of exiled life in Rome with her husband Carlos IV, who renounced the Spanish Crown up to three times and ended up wandering between France and Italy. In that small court of exiles, spies and courtiers fallen from grace, melancholy settled as one more guest. Not content with the humiliation, Napoleon Bonaparte and then Ferdinand VII spent years demanding that Maria Luisa return the supposedly stolen jewelery to Spain.

The Bourbon Queen was required to return the “crown jewels”, that is, the diamonds linked to the Royal Heritage that should not have left Spain for belonging to the State. The Italian would defend until her last breath that the only ones she took with her were from her strict property and that La Peregrina or El Estanque had been left behind, both jewels obtained in the time of Felipe II and that had even survived the fire in the Alcázar de la Nochebuena from 1734.

La Peregrina is a pearl of unusual size and shape that was discovered by an African slave, in Panama, around 1515, and nicknamed with a thousand names due to its beauty: “La sola”, “La margarita” … The jewel was offered Decades later to King Felipe II by the Chief Constable of Panama, Diego de Tebes, who had brought her to Seville. According to a document of the time, it weighed 58.5 carats and was teardrop-shaped. Margarita de Austria, Isabel de Borbón and María Luisa de Parma posed with her in different portraits, although with a different montage adapted to fashion.

The Pond is the name given to a hundred-karat brilliant also obtained by the Prudent King, who bought it in Antwerp for a price of 80,000 gold shields from a Flemish named Carlo Affetato. It was carved in Spain and offered to Isabel de Valois, his third wife, on the occasion of his wedding. The Leonese goldsmith Juan de Arfe went on to say that it was a perfect diamond, cut in such a way that its entire area was square, with four perfect and equal sides at right angles, giving rise to full and entire angles and very sharp corners.

Napoleon’s trick
While Carlos IV was silent and Ferdinand VII incited the thief accusation against his mother, for years it was assumed that, indeed, María Luisa had stolen the jewels, and that thanks to them she had been able to pay for certain luxuries in Rome. Whoever benefited the most from this smear campaign, apart from Fernando, always happy to launch hoaxes against Godoy and his mother, was Napoleon, who took advantage of the confusion to cover his responsibility in what was a true looting of Spain.

The Gran Corso asked his brother-in-law Joaquín Murat, sent to take Madrid, to dispatch and dismantle on the way to France any valuable object that he found in the palaces to defray the expenses of the occupation. The historian Izquierdo Hernández affirms that the French appropriated only in the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial with diamonds and jewels for an estimated value of four million francs from the 19th century. Murat’s wife Carolina Bonaparte (1782-1839) would have left Spain for Paris with a millionaire treasure.

José I ordered, among his first measures, his major stewardship to deliver to the Minister of Finance, Count of Cabarrús, the jewels of the Spanish Crown for their appraisal. In an inventory kept in the French National Archives, there is a list of all those jewels that give a total price of 22 million reais. According to this same document, Minister Cabarrús himself handed over the jewels to the help of José Bonaparte, Cristóbal Chinvelli, who sent them to Julia Clary, the King’s consort, in Paris. The Pond was removed from the Royal Palace and sent, with an appraisal of 1,500,000 reais, to France, while La Peregrina passed directly into the hands of the Bonaparte.

That plundering meant the disappearance of the jewels related to and belonging to the Spanish Crown, and from that moment on, the rest of the jewels were exclusive and private goods, the jewels owned by the Kings of Spain. Some jewels, such as El Estanque, were able to return home after the war. Fernando VII gave it to him, set on the hilt of a sword, to Francisco I of Naples on the occasion of his marriage to María Cristina de Borbón, who would eventually become his fourth wife.

Even today there are those who defend in Spain that that pearl of Taylor is not the authentic one

Other pieces lost their trail or, of course, moved away from Spain. When Napoleon’s brother separated and left for the United States with a mistress, he took the Pilgrim with him. The jewel is believed to have ended at his death in the hands of Napoleon III, who in turn sold it to the Marquis of Abercorn, whose wife wore it at least once at a ball at the Tuileries Palace. After many twists and turns it ended up in the hands of the actor Richard Burton, who acquired it in the mid-20th century and gave it to his beloved Elizabeth Taylor.

Even today there are those who defend in Spain that this pearl of Taylor is not the authentic one and that, in fact, the Bourbons never got rid of it.

Marshal Soult out of control
Apart from the looting of the jewels, the Napoleonic troops carried out a complete looting of the Spanish artistic heritage. After the battle of Vitoria, the Duke of Wellington intercepted José I’s luggage when he tried to flee from Spain. In the car were found not only State documents, some love letters and a silver chamber pot, but also more than two hundred paintings on canvas, unhooked from its racks and rolled up, along with drawings and engravings.

Bonaparte’s luggage was only the tip of the iceberg of an institutional looting process that began in 1808 with the false pretext of gathering the works in a museum in Madrid for their good preservation, but which later became a project to nurture the Louvre in France. Fifty paintings specifically selected for Napoleon arrived in Paris in July 1814 after a journey of more than a year. Previously Vivant Denon had already sent two hundred and fifty selected works. Only six works were exhibited, as the rest were considered second row by those responsible for the Louvre, who did not believe in the existence of a Spanish school as such.

The Carlos Ballesta López Foundation calculates in his work “The Exploitation of Spanish Heritage during the War of Independence” that almost 2,000 paintings were stolen in Madrid, which added to the almost 1,000 in Seville, make almost 3,000 in the two Spanish cities alone. Among these works, a large part were by Flemish and Italian authors, such as Rubens, Rafael, Tiziano, or Corregio, highly appreciated in France, but also Spanish painters such as Velázquez, Murillo, Zurbarán or Ribera.

The situation became so scandalous and chaotic that on September 12, 1809, José I prohibited the extraction of precious metals and ordered the confiscation of everything that had been hidden and, by means of another later decree, prohibited the exit of works of art from the country. Even so, these prohibitions did not affect the military governors of the different provinces, who enjoyed a total level of independence from Madrid and took advantage of the virgin land that was Spain to profit from the plunder.

José I prohibited the extraction of precious metals and ordered the confiscation of everything that had been hidden

Marshal Soult, general-in-chief of the Andalusian army, stood out as the most brilliant trilero when it came to obtaining works of art through extortion. As he extended his military power, he offered the religious of the Andalusian monasteries his help and protection, a euphemism for them to sell him at ridiculous prices the works of art that most interested him. The marshal maintained a constant flow of shipments to France until almost the end of the occupation, in 1813. A large part of the paintings were by Murillo, a painter who, unlike the rest of the Spanish, enjoyed a certain prestige abroad. .

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