In the spring and summer of 2021 the Metropolitan Museum in New York and several museums in Europe confirmed that they will send back to Nigeria some of the many bronzes looted by British forces from Benin City in 1897. Museums and official bodies in Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and France are now taking steps toward returning artifacts from former colonies. In Britain, arguments also continue about the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece; some have suggested the creation of a Spoliation Advisory Panel, similar to the one that deals with works stolen by the Nazis.
Art looted in war, impounded by rapacious regimes, or sold in dubious or forced transactions has a significance greater than their aesthetic or monetary value. Often they embody the history, culture, and even spiritual values of a society, which makes their removal more traumatic. This is poignantly relevant to Napoleon’s greatest art “theft,” as Cynthia Saltzman calls it in Plunder: the transfer of Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding Feast at Cana from Venice to the Louvre in 1797–1798. Feasts were traditional subjects for monastic refectories, and for over two centuries this great painting, completed in 1563, had graced one wall of Andrea Palladio’s austere refectory in the Benedictine abbey of San Giorgio Maggiore, on an island in the Venetian lagoon.
As the damp of the lagoon quickly damaged frescoes painted directly onto plaster, local artists preferred to work in oil on canvas, becoming renowned for their mastery of color. After Veronese arrived in 1551 from Verona (from which he gained his name), he both learned from and competed with the great masters Titian and Tintoretto. Saltzman traces Veronese’s secular and religious commissions and describes his practice in illuminating detail, noting his favored pigments as well as his skilled draftsmanship and composition.
The Wedding Feast at Cana presented daunting practical challenges. To assemble the canvas, which is 22.2 by 32.6 feet, Veronese’s assistants cut six long, heavy strips of linen, stitching them together so tightly, Saltzman writes, that “the 724-square-foot canvas would have appeared to be a single piece of cloth.” Then it was nailed to its wooden stretcher and primed with gesso.
On this vast surface, Veronese created a religious painting that was also a tribute to the rich life of Venice. It shows a banquet on a terrace, set against classical architecture, with a crowd of life-size guests, musicians, and servants, all dressed in the highest of fashion. Veronese brilliantly captured the cosmopolitan and commercial background of the sea-girt city, displaying its wealth “in silver and gold plates, glass goblets, musical instruments, and ravishing clothes, made of Venetian silk: fabric woven in Venice, from threads spun and dyed in Venice.” The colors shine: “dusky reds, blues made of powdered lapis lazuli, oranges, evening yellows, greens, and whites”—a luxurious, worldly display. Reproduced in prints, The Wedding Feast at Cana was acclaimed across Europe, especially in France: Louis XIV tried to buy it and was rebuffed, and Denis Diderot called it “one of the most beautiful pieces in the world.”
In August 1793 the Louvre—before the French Revolution a palace of the Bourbons—was opened as the Musée Français, displaying the former royal collections to their new owners, the people. Soon more works were added, appropriated from churches, monasteries, convents, and the estates of dead or exiled aristocrats. Then France’s revolutionary government looked abroad, recognizing the power of art as a sign of status and its seizure as a subtle tool to crush the spirit of conquered states. After the defeat of Austria by the revolutionary armies in the Low Countries in 1794, 150 works were carted to Paris, including paintings by Rubens from Antwerp cathedral. The rhetoric was not of capture but of liberation. As the artist and soldier Luc Barbier explained to the National Convention, masterpieces “soiled by the gaze of servitude” were now “delivered to the home of the arts and of genius, the land of liberty and equality, the French Republic.”
Two years later, in May 1796, when Napoleon Bonaparte was campaigning in northern Italy, he asked the Directory—the governing committee of the First French Republic in Paris—to “send me a list.” Within days the Directory issued firm instructions to acquire works of art and gave him permission to appoint experts “to research, collect, and ship to Paris the objects of this sort that are the most precious.” The authorized pillaging began. The Directory’s demand is a rare example of plunder as official state policy, although looting had always accompanied warfare and conquest—the bronze horses that stood proudly on St. Mark’s Basilica were seized by the Venetians after the sack of Constantinople in 1204.
No commander ordered to bring back the finest art in Italy could ignore Venice, which, as Saltzman says, “dazzl[ed] Grand Tour connoisseurs.” Venetians trembled when Napoleon headed for Milan, since their territory on the mainland stretched to the borders of the Duchy of Milan, ruled by the Hapsburgs. For a time, clinging to a fragile official neutrality, Venice appeared safe. But the Arsenal, the city’s famous naval facility, lacked ships to fend off invaders, and there was no protection except the sea.
Anxious envoys dealt with curtly by Bonaparte sent back admiring, alarmed reports of a restless, volatile young soldier, furiously energetic, quick to take offense, proud of his logistical skill, yet profoundly romantic in his sense of his own destiny. His personal life seemed romantic too: he had been married for less than a year to the beautiful Josephine de Beauharnais, widowed when her first husband was guillotined in 1794. Josephine had been imprisoned herself, a fact sometimes used to explain her extravagance. “The bills from her dressmaker (she owned more than nine hundred dresses) would also exceed those of Marie-Antoinette,” Saltzman notes briskly.
In her earlier books, Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1998), on the painting by Van Gogh, and Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures (2008), Saltzman showed her ability to interpret different webs of art, commerce, politics, and personal ambition. In Plunder, she moves with enviable ease and clarity between periods and narratives, examining the place of Veronese in the life and art of sixteenth-century Venice, the rise of Napoleon two hundred years later, and the later fate of the plundered art. Her research is meticulous but her style is light, enlivened by acute sketches of minor characters: the crowded scene of The Wedding Feast at Cana could almost be a model for the book’s structure.
The only aspect that detracts from the book is the poor reproduction of carefully researched pictures: its black-and-white images are hard to decipher. But this is hardly the author’s fault, and the suspenseful narrative and wealth of detail are compensation. We feel the force of Napoleon’s unstoppable progress and the zeal with which he turned the Directory’s orders into a personal project. In plundering Italy, Saltzman writes, the Louvre
would be his collaborator. The Paris museum would distract eyes from the bloodshed and casualty counts, disguising his ruthlessness with the brilliance of its collections and transmuting that ruthlessness into glory.
By late May 1796, having entered Milan and captured the Duchy of Modena, home of the legendary art collection of the d’Este dukes, French forces were in the Veneto. On June 1, after impatient disputes between Napoleon and harassed Venetian emissaries, Venice surrendered Verona. Then Napoleon turned south, entering the Papal States. In the subsequent armistice Pius VI agreed to deliver to the French Republic a hundred “paintings, busts, vases or statues,” and soon the team of experts, chosen by the Louvre’s director, Lazare Carnot, set to work. They included the painter Jean-Simon Berthélemy and the sculptor Jean-Guillaume Moitte; two botanists, Jacques-Julien de Labillardière and the enterprising director of the Jardin des Plantes, André Thouin; as well as two acclaimed “natural philosophers,” the chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet and the mathematician Gaspard Monge. In Rome, the commissioners’ long list of desired objects ranged from Raphael’s last painting, The Transfiguration, to the Apollo Belvedere, arousing protests even from Paris against the removal of classical statues.
The first Roman foray ended abruptly due to renewed fighting in the north, but within a year the French were back. Anticipating the hoard of art, in February 1797 Napoleon wrote to the Directory as if he were reporting a victory in the field:
The commission of experts has reaped a good harvest in Ravenna, Rimini, Pescara, Ancona, Loreto and Perugia which will be sent to Paris. That, together with what we have from Rome, will mean that we have everything that is a work of art in Italy, save for a small number of objects in Turin and Naples.
Not quite everything—so far Venice remained untouched. But on May 3, 1797, Napoleon declared war on the Venetian Republic. Six days later, panicked by shots fired, as it turned out, by its own departing soldiers, the Great Council rushed through a vote to abolish the ancient republic and create a new provisional state under French rule. On May 16, as seven thousand French troops arrived in the lagoon, Bonaparte dictated a treaty from Milan whereby Venice would pay a heavy fine, provide ships, and surrender “twenty paintings and five hundred manuscripts.”
Berthollet, an expert in chemical dyeing and silk manufacture, would be a crucial figure in Venice, as he not only spoke fluent Italian but had worked for the Duc d’Orléans and had a laboratory in the Palais Royal, home of the supreme Orléans collection, packed with Titians, Tintorettos, and Veroneses. Before his fellow commissioners arrived he dashed through the city as if following a guidebook, listing paintings in the Doge’s Palace, churches, and monasteries. The list was then handed to the restorer Pietro Edwards, inspector general of Venice’s public pictures, who had been ordered to advise the French. Edwards read it with horror: it included three Tintorettos, three Titians, and six major works by Veronese, including The Wedding Feast at Cana and the smaller Feast in the House of Simon in the monastery of San Sebastiano. These works, and others like the beautiful Bellini altarpiece Madonna and Child Enthroned, framed in a stone arch in the church of San Zaccaria, were fixed in their architectural settings. Removing them amounted to vandalism. Edwards tried to prevent this by warning diplomatically that they were already in a “dangerous state,” but his protests only made things worse, as the French swapped one Tintoretto for yet another enormous Veronese, The Feast in the House of Levi in the refectory of the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo.
Saltzman’s vivid account of the removal and transport of the paintings forms a gripping catalog of carelessness and complicated logistics. The canvases from Rome and elsewhere had been already rolled up and carried away in jolting, precarious carts. In Venice, the size of the Feasts, in particular, made the task still more difficult. As workmen separated The Wedding Feast at Cana from its wooden stretcher in the monastery of San Giorgio, it suddenly ripped along a horizontal row of nails hidden beneath the paint, probably put there by earlier Venetian restorers when the canvas began to sag. As the heavy canvas fell, a second row appeared, and then a third. Lines of large nail holes ran through the blue sky at the top, along the balustrade in the middle, and through the crowd below.
The dismantling of the Venetian paintings took three weeks. Then they were wrapped around cylinders and packed into specially made crates. At the last moment, Napoleon, now back in Paris, ordered the shipment of the four bronze horses from St. Mark’s, as well as the winged bronze Lion of Saint Mark that stood atop a column in front of the Doge’s Palace and the Doge’s ceremonial barge, the bucintoro (which was chopped up for its gold). The crates of pictures, stowed on an armed frigate, were shipped to Toulon and then taken by barge to Paris, up the Rhône and the Saône Rivers and through a network of canals. Once unloaded, the Italian trophies, including natural history specimens and manuscripts as well as many of the works of art and the horses of St. Mark’s, were paraded through the capital in a special Fête de la Liberté, “to trumpet [Napoleon’s] Italian victories and proclaim France heir to the Roman Empire.”
In July 1798, when The Wedding Feast at Cana arrived at the Louvre, one room, the Salon Carré, was already hung with paintings from Parma, Piacenza, Milan, Modena, Cento, and Bologna. In November, a new exhibition unveiled eighty-two additional paintings taken from Venice, Rome, and other cities, including works by Caravaggio and Mantegna, nine Raphaels, and twelve Veroneses. But not The Wedding Feast at Cana, which was still being restored. At this point, the Louvre’s Administrative Council made the drastic decision to unstitch the central seam, divide the huge canvas, and mount the two parts on separate stretchers. As the workmen cut it, paint shards fell to the floor. Stabilizing the canvas and painting over the join would give restorers continuing work. However hard they tried, The Wedding Feast at Cana, no longer shining in its pure Palladian setting, lost its double identity as an object of devotion and an encapsulation of Venetian power and artistic genius.
In November 1799, a month after his return from campaigning in Egypt and the Levant, Napoleon became one of the three consuls whose provisional government signaled the end of the Directory and, many said, the end of the Revolution. By the end of the year, at the age of thirty, he became First Consul, with complete authority over France. Napoleon had never shown much personal interest in art, but he certainly understood its power as propaganda.
A subtheme of Saltzman’s account is the developing iconography of his rise, beginning with the heroic Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcola by Antoine-Jean Gros, far from accurate (Napoleon withdrew, fell in a ditch, and had to be pulled out by his troops) but still “an early icon of Romanticism.” After the Italian campaigns of 1799 and 1800, Jacques-Louis David, commissioned by Charles IV of Spain, painted Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard with his billowing cloak on his “wild-eyed rearing horse” (he actually crossed on a mule). In 1804, when Napoleon became emperor, Gros’s Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa showed him as both hero and savior, “capable of somehow rescuing not only French soldiers in Egypt but also the French nation, even if it were in a state of mayhem and destruction.” The series was completed by David’s lavish, idealized Coronation (1808). Seeing this, Napoleon asked the painter to alter it to show the pope, who had been summoned forcibly to Paris, raising his hand in blessing, a demand that David resisted, depicting him instead slumped, as if in defeat.
The pillaged collection in the Louvre offered Bonaparte a different form of propaganda: it was an opportunity to pose as an art-loving intellectual and “Enlightenment leader,” while ignoring shocked murmurs of plunder. The display in the Salon Carré was soon amplified by that of the Grande Galerie, a corridor a quarter of a mile long, its dark green walls covered with a staggering 950 paintings, “many of them masterpieces.” The Galerie joined the Louvre to the Tuileries, where Napoleon was based, and he and Josephine had no qualms about asking for works for their own quarters. Josephine in particular was outraged when a request was denied. “We are battling incessantly with our neighbors,” one Louvre official said. Every day the Bonapartes “demand the most expensive paintings; it is necessary to give up something and already Raphael’s Holy Family has left: you can imagine our regret.”
The choice increased when more works arrived after the defeat of Prussia in 1806. And in 1810, when Napoleon, having divorced Josephine, married the Austrian princess Marie-Louise, his grand processional ended with a promenade down the Grande Galerie to the Salon Carré, where the ceremony was held in a specially erected chapel. The Salon Carré was where The Wedding Feast at Cana hung in splendor, but now, on the emperor’s furious orders, defying all advice, it was stripped of pictures so that tiers of seating could be built for those in attendance. Once more the great Veronese was moved; once more it was perilously reassembled.
Four years later, Napoleon abdicated and left for Elba. Louis XVIII took the throne and the Napoleonic empire was dismantled, but all requests for the return of works of art were brushed aside by the Louvre’s director, Dominique-Vivant Denon. After Napoleon’s return and the final, resounding French defeat at Waterloo, the second Treaty of Paris in 1815 still took no account of the looted art. The issue was pressed by the Austrian foreign minister, Klemens von Metternich: Venice was now under Austrian rule and the first step, he insisted, must be the return of the bronze horses to St. Mark’s.
The British, however, seemed interested less in restoration than in claiming masterpieces for themselves, having, Prime Minister Lord Liverpool wrote, “a better title to them than the French, if legitimate war gives a title to such objects.” The Duke of Wellington, who saw art less as a trophy than a weapon, argued that removing the plundered works would “remind the French that ‘Europe is too strong for them.’” The sculptor Antonio Canova campaigned tirelessly for the return of works taken from Italy. In the end, however, while many—including the horses—did make their way back, The Wedding Feast at Cana did not. Denon claimed that it was so frail that if the Austrians tried to transport it, “they might as well destroy it,” which ensured that it stayed in Paris.
It would, however, be moved again, to places of safety during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and World War II. Today, in its heavy gold frame, it adorns the end wall of the great Salle des États in the Louvre, whose blue walls are “lined with a breathtaking flight of some forty Venetian High Renaissance paintings, each framed in gold,” including “eight Titians, three Tintorettos, and nine Veroneses”—a tribute, Saltzman says, to the French love affair with Italian art.
The Hague Convention on the Laws and Customs of War of 1899, restated in 1907, proscribed the plunder of art and required respect for cultural works. This did not stop the Nazis, whose demands for restitution of works taken in 1794 were the beginning of “an art-looting project on a scale that outstripped Napoleon’s,” Saltzman tells us. After the war the 1954 Hague Convention banned the “theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property” and insisted that all property taken illegally should be returned. By 2019 the convention had been ratified by 133 countries. But as Plunder demonstrates, and as the current arguments about colonial acquisitions show, the issues of pillage and the problems of restitution have a deep, entangled history: many objects will never be returned to their rightful owners, and the complex and painful discussions around the subject will continue, without a doubt, for many years to come.