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How Napoleon Became One of History’s Most Rapacious Art Looters

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Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast
By Cynthia Saltzman

On Aug. 10, 1793, France’s revolutionary government brought into being one of the crowning projects of the Enlightenment: the Louvre Museum. Once the province of kings and popes, Europe’s greatest artworks would now belong to the people; in the name of science, the arch-modern state would offer Titians and Rembrandts as instruments of public learning and republican liberty. With such exalted purpose, the interior minister Jean-Marie Roland predicted, the new gallery would be “among the most powerful illustrations of the French Republic.”

But where to get the art? Amid the chaos of revolution, a third of the country’s royal collections had been sold abroad. Even the pillaging of the French Catholic Church could not make up for it. Within a year, as their armies pushed the Austrians out of the Netherlands, France’s new leaders hit upon an answer. Paintings could be “liberated” by conquest; Rubenses were carted back to Paris with the artillery. This innovation was not lost on the glory-addled young general who was preparing to invade Italy. In “Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast,” Cynthia Saltzman, the author of two previous books about art, exposes the rich contradictions of the 1796 Italian campaign through the story of a prized Venetian masterpiece. Under orders from the Directory, Napoleon set out to “enrich” the new French museum with the treasures of each vanquished city. Highly organized, the seizures took place through peace treaties, the art selected by specialists; ships laden with Correggios, Leonardos and Raphaels sailed under military escort to Marseille.

Still, Venice was different. A proud republic in its own right, the city-state was hardly under the imperial yoke before Napoleon marched in. And some of its most important artworks were far too large, and too fragile, to move. Among them was “The Wedding Feast at Cana” (1563), the astonishing, open-air banquet scene that Paolo Veronese had painted, in situ, for the refectory of San Giorgio Maggiore. Measuring more than 22 by 32 feet, it transformed the biblical story into a sparkling pageant of Venetian life. It also formed the centerpiece of a building by Andrea Palladio that was itself a work of art. Any attempt to remove the monumental painting, Venice’s chief restorer warned, risked destroying it and its exquisite setting.

But Napoleon’s men could not be dissuaded. The artwork was brazenly taken down, wrapped in a Tintoretto, a Titian and two other Veroneses, and shipped to Paris. So precarious was its condition on arrival, Saltzman writes, that French conservators had to cut the painting in two in order to reline it, a procedure that sounds a bit like open-heart surgery. Even stitched back together, “The Wedding Feast at Cana” raised a larger question: What was Europe to make of the painting’s new home, a vast public museum stocked with war booty?

In Saltzman’s scrupulous telling, there was rancor, but also awe. Jacques-Louis David, France’s pre-eminent painter, protested the removal of the “Apollo Belvedere” and the “Laocoön” from Rome. A Leipzig scholar likened such pillage to a “crime against humanity.” Yet by 1802, some 10,000 British visitors were flocking to Paris to see “all the treasures of Italy” gathered in one place — anticipating the perverse allure of leading Western museums today. Hitler would take note.

In the end, Napoleon’s seizure of power quickly put the lie to the Louvre’s lofty civic ideals. The revolution defeated, his later campaigns were aimed as much at matching the splendor of Louis XIV as at benefiting what was now more accurately called the “Musée Napoléon.” With his downfall, some of the art was repatriated. But not all: Louvre officials said that “The Wedding Feast at Cana” was too fragile to move. Today it shares the same gallery as the “Mona Lisa.”

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