BY ALEX GREENBERGERPlus Icon
May 10, 2021 4:09pm
Since its completion in 1563, Paolo Veronese’s 32-foot-long painting The Wedding Feast at Cana had been an object of admiration—an image with religious resonance for the monks of Venice’s San Giorgio Maggiore who came before it and a picture filled with aesthetic significance for the countless artists it inspired. But by September 1797, it existed in a bizarre in-between state, something more like war booty. That year, Napoleon’s soldiers violently yanked it from the walls of the refectory for which it was made. The painting was then shipped to France.
“Once off the wall of the Benedictine monastery, wrapped around a cylinder and enclosed in a crate, Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana was in limbo,” Cynthia Saltzman writes in her new book, Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). “It was no longer an object of religious devotion, nor fully a work of art, but temporarily cargo, part of a shipment of goods, in transit.”
The massive painting left Venice for Toulon, France, and then made its way to Arles, where it was placed aboard a ship along with artworks that had been taken from Rome. By the end of July 1798, the Veronese painting had come to Paris, where it was installed in the Louvre and where, with a few minor exceptions, it has remained ever since. (A full-scale replica of the painting can now be found in San Giorgio Maggiore.) The knotty story of how The Wedding Feast at Cana got there forms the basis of Saltzman’s book, which considers the weaponization of a Renaissance masterpiece for political means.
It’s no surprise that Napoleon and his troops grew interested in The Wedding Feast at Cana—it has long been considered nearly unparalleled in its beauty. In the work, Veronese depicts the celebration in which Jesus Christ transfigures water into wine. Even though he’s placed Christ at the work’s center, Veronese has daringly minimized the man’s presence in the work, instead devoting greater attention to the talkative guests and peckish dogs who have attended the party, and to the contemporary Italian backdrop in which Veronese has set this ancient scene. Because of the high-quality paints Veronese used for the work, the work appears intensely real, almost photographic in some places. Set within an area of the refectory designed by Andrea Palladio, it appeared magisterial. In 1660, the artist Marco Boschini wrote, “This is not Painting, this is magic.”
Others would have certainly agreed. By 1705, the monks at the refectory were forced to begin restricting the droves of people coming to see it. Once it hung at the Louvre, it continued to draw admirers. Calling The Wedding Feast at Cana the “greatest known picture in the world,” Jacques-Louis David took the Veronese piece as inspiration he made his own 32-foot-long painting, The Coronation of Napoleon (1807), which also hangs in the museum. Later on, Eugène Delacroix wrote that he “wouldn’t miss” The Wedding Feast at Cana upon any of his numerous visits to the Paris museum, and Vincent van Gogh considered the Veronese evidence that painters ought to use color toward more expressive means.
Napoleon recognized early on that obtaining works such as this one would be crucial in his quest for European domination. In 1794, he began envision the Louvre—then only a year old—as an institution that “should hold the most famous monuments of all the arts, and you will not neglect enriching it from those pieces for which it waits from the present conquests of the Army of Italy.”
In 1796, his troops took from Parma a number of works, including Correggio’s Madonna of Saint Jerome (ca. 1528), which the city-state’s duke had considered an object of personal significance. “In prying paintings from the Duke of Parma, Bonaparte knew that he was stripping the duchy of assets of incalculable value, a property tied to its history, its culture and identity,” Saltzman writes. “Their loss delivered a sharp blow to a neutral state, which he had declared to be his enemy. In this way, Bonaparte used art as a weapon of war.”
A similar tactic would come to be used on Venice, which likewise tried to stay out of Napoleon’s conflicts across Europe at the time. The final blow came in May 1797, when French troops entered the state, and ordered Venice to pay France three million francs and surrender “twenty paintings and five hundred manuscripts, to be chosen by the general in chief.” Claude Berthollet, a chemist with no formal art historical training, was picked to select those works. He assembled his list in just eight days; The Wedding Feast at Cana was No. 7 on it, sandwiched between two other Veroneses.
It’s clear, based on Plunder, that the taking of the Veronese painting was but one small event amid a whole lot of looting and carnage—a blip on the radar during an epic campaign for domination. In tribute to this, Saltzman spends entire chapters away from the Veronese painting, zipping through Napoleon’s conquests and offering an aerial view of French politics at the time. These sections tend to lack the energy of the book’s more art-specific chapters, but Saltzman’s purpose is clear: the plundering of the Veronese was a political happening unto itself.
So too was its exhibition in the Louvre, which became a vehicle for the French to assert dominance over other European countries. Its walls lined with iconic works exemplifying the traditions from countries like France, Italy, Holland, Flanders, and Germany, the Louvre began to act as a destination for anyone interested in European art. “The Louvre had come to resemble what its revolutionary founders had imagined—a collection whose brilliance would draw Europe’s gaze and cause Paris to be recognized as the new Rome,” Saltzman writes.
Ironically, there were positives to The Wedding Feast of Cana being exhibited at the Louvre. For one thing, it could be seen by more people than ever before, and no one would have to worry about the restrictions on attendance that had been put in place by the refectory. For another, the Veronese painting was now contextualized by Renaissance artworks that would not normally have been shown alongside it.
Not everyone who came, however, was pleased with the Louvre’s presentation of its looted art—the German poet Friedrich Schiller wrote of the Greek art there, “To the Vandal they are but stone!” But, Saltzman writes, “most who visited the Louvre refused to the let the violent provenance of its masterpieces interfere with the dizzying pleasure of the encounter with more than a thousand pictures, all together, all at once.”
To some degree, that’s still the case. Saltzman reports that, as of 2020, the wall text for the work stated that the painting was “Saisie révolutionnaire, 1797,” or a revolutionary capture. That label and the work now appear in the Salle des États, where it faces the Mona Lisa. Because of the crowds that flock to see the Leonardo painting under normal conditions, it can be difficult to get a look at the Veronese’s wall text.
That the Louvre has historically been resistant to accurately reflecting the acquisition of the Veronese work is evident from the events of the early 1800s. After Napoleon’s empire fell, countries that had been robbed of their art began to reobtain priceless works from the Louvre. Robert Stewart, Viscount of Castlereagh, at the time the British foreign secretary, wrote, “The whole [Louvre] will soon disappear.”
In 1815, as works were being hauled off the walls and sent back to where they came from, artist Antonio Canova, working as an emissary for Pope Pius VIII, got to work on restituting Italian art. But in letter from that year, Canova claimed he was never given a say in the Veronese’s fate. Fearing that The Wedding at Cana was too fragile to travel once more, museum officials reached a deal with the Austrians, who were now in control of parts of Italy including Venice, whereby the painting was ultimately left behind in Paris, in exchange for a few French canvases. (Because of the agreement, Venetians are still unable to file a legal claim for the painting’s return—a fact which Saltzman does not mention.) “The famous Supper by Paolo remains here,” Canova wrote through gritted teeth.
This would seem to have been a victory for the Louvre, but its leadership was still irate over all the other treasures soon to leave France’s borders. Just a few days after the Veronese deal was completed, Vivant Denon, the Louvre’s first director, resigned. Before he left, he penned an angry account of what had transpired at the museum. In it he wrote, “Europe had had to be conquered in order to fashion this, Europe had had to join together to destroy it.” Today, the wing of the Louvre where the Veronese painting hangs bears Denon’s name.