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Napoleon’s Plunder and the Theft of Veronese’s Feast

Cynthia Saltzman

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A captivating in-depth study of Napoleon's plundering of Europe's art and how it legitimized the Louvre

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'Taking without taste, without choice, is ignorance and near vandalism.’
The French Directory to Napoleon Bonaparte, 1796

Napoleon’s Plunder chronicles one of the most spectacular art appropriation campaigns in history and, in doing so, sheds new light on the complex origins of what was once called the Musée Napoléon, now known as the Louvre.

In 1796, four years after the founding of the First French Republic and only two days after his marriage to Josephine de Beauharnais, Napoleon Bonaparte left Paris to take command of his first campaign in Italy, aged only twenty-six. One year later, Napoleon’s army was in Venice and his commissioners were determining which great Renaissance artworks to bring back to France. Among the paintings the French chose was The Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese, a vast masterpiece that had hung in the refectory of San Giorgio Maggiore since it was painted in 1563.

Once pulled from the wall, the Venetian canvas crossed the Mediterranean packed among paintings commandeered from Venice and made its way by river and canal to Paris where Napoleon gathered his spoils of war – treasures from the cities of Rome, Milan, and later Berlin and Vienna. In 1801 the Veronese was placed on triumphant display in the Louvre, the former palace of the French kings, which had been transformed into a public museum that ostensibly belonged to the French people, but which also functioned as a monument to Napoleon’s power.

Saltzman interweaves the stories of Napoleon’s military campaigns, uncovering the treaties through which he obtained his loot, with the histories of the plundered works themselves, exploring how these masterpieces came into being. As much as a story of military might, this is an account of one of the most ambitious cultural projects ever conducted.

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Andrew Marr, Start the Week, R4

'Fascinating and deeply rewarding … underpinned by wide research and an impressive grasp of techniques and technicalities ... a delight to read'
Adam Zamoyski, Daily Telegraph

'[A] well-written, carefully constructed, artistic gem of a book ... Saltzman can convey her knowledge with clarity as well as wisdom ... An excellent book'
Jeremy Black, The New Criterion

'Veronese’s 'Wedding Feast at Cana' - the greatest party ever put to paint - is the ripe plum at the centre of this artful, deeply-researched and sumptuous account of Napoleon’s plunder of European art. Cynthia Saltzman, much like Veronese himself, uses her story to bring to vivid life a large and colourful cast of characters, ranging from ambitious artists to plotting diplomats. We watch Veronese paint. We see Napoleon sulk. This book is a feast all its own'
Mark Stevens, co-author of 'De Kooning: An American Master' and 'Francis Bacon: Revelations'

'The fascination of Saltzman’s splendid book lies to a significant degree in her subtle contrast of the tumultuous immensity of Bonaparte’s aspirations and the serenity of Veronese’s painting … Thoroughly at ease in the Venetian Renaissance and French imperial worlds, Cynthia Saltzman tells this story with Veronesian panache'
Literary Review

'Expertly researched, 'Napoleon's Plunder' chronicles one of history's most incredible art appropriation campaigns, illuminating a historic figure and the complex origins of one of the greatest museums in the modern world'

'[A] fascinating and wide-ranging cultural history, at the centre of which is the fate of one of the Renaissance’s greatest paintings ... Among the most chilling pages of Saltzman’s forensic narrative is her account of the damage suffered by Veronese’s painting on its journey to Paris'
Sunday Times

'One thing which is absolutely certain is that anybody reading this expertly researched book will be longing to go to the Louvre'
Mature Times

'Saltzman’s sharp eyes – for people, settings and dramatic scenery – draw us brilliantly across 250 years and most of continental Europe'
The Oldie

'Saltzman seamlessly interweaves multiple narratives … we encounter the ruthlessness of Napoleon’s military campaigns alongside the splendour of Venetian art, illustrating how deeply politics and aesthetics connects at this time. … [Saltzman] recounts the stories of a wide spectrum of figures – from artists to ambassadors, restorers to royalty – with rigour and wit, bringing the history to life'
Art Quarterly

'[Saltzman’s] perceptive book traces Napoleon’s systematic gathering of artistic treasures as he conquered Italy, focusing on Veronese’s masterpiece … An absorbing story of conflict and culture'
The Economist

'As Saltzman explains in this compelling account of the fragility of beauty before avarice, Napoleon made a science of plunder … [a] thrilling blend of historical narrative and art criticism'
The Times

'But really, Saltzman uses Veronese’s “Feast” as a framework for an investigation of art theft as a cultural strategy. Using a mix of art, military, and intellectual history, she argues that controlling art is a powerful way to control hearts and minds… Plunder is at its best when Saltzman describes – and dissects – the philosophical and nationalistic underpinnings of France’s art kleptomania…. Plunder asks its readers to look at art museums through a combined historical-ethical lens. Many of us could use that skill in the present, too'

Arts Society

'Saltzman’s exhaustive research makes the painting’s fate read like an adventure story … a fascinating read'
The Lady

'[An] absorbing and chilling narrative'
The Times, Art Books of the Year 2021

'A thrilling – and chilling – account of cultural despoliation'
Michael Prodger, New Statesman Books of the Year

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Product Information

Book Details

Format: Hardback

Size: 23.4 x 15.3 cm

Extent: 320 pp

Illustrations: 46

Publication date: 13 May 2021

ISBN: 9780500252574

Contents List

Introduction: “The theft of Veronese’s Feast” • 1. “Send Me a List of the Pictures, Statues, Cabinets and Curiosities.” • 2. “Do Not Fear the French Armies Will Not Respect Venetian Neutrality.” • 3. “Master Paolo ... Will ... Not Spare Any Expense for the Finest Ultramarine.” • 4. “He is Rich in Plans.” • 5.“The Museum Must Demonstrate the Nation’s Great Riches.” • 6. “Draw as Much as You Can from Venetian Territory.” • 7. “The Pope will Deliver ... One Hundred Paintings Busts, Vases or Statues.” • 8. “I’m on a Path a Thousand Times More Glorious.” • 9. “The Republic of Venice will Surrender... 20 Paintings and 600 Manuscripts.” • 10. “In the Church of S. George, No. 6. The Wedding Feast at Cana.” • 11. “We ... Have Received from Citizen Pietro Edwards.” • 12. “The Safest Way is to Send Them on a Frigate with 32 Canons.” • 13. “The Seam will be Unstitched.” • 14. “The Revolution ... is Finished.” • 15. “You Enter a Gallery—such a gallery. But such a gallery!!!” Louvre 1801-1802 • 16. “This One Besides Nature Doesn’t Look to Have Been Painted.” • 17. “The Transparency of Air ... Place[s] Gros beside Tintoretto and Paul Veronese” • 18. “This Beautiful Work Reminds Us of the Picture by Paul Veronese.” • 19. “I Succeeded ... in Packing Most of the Pieces of Small Size and Great Value.” • 20. “The Only Thing to Do Is to Burn Them!” • 21. “This Foreboding Painting... Seems to Summon the Eye from All Directions.” • 22. “The Masterpieces of the Arts Now Belong to Us.” • 23. “We Are At Last Beginning to Drag Forth from This Great Cavern of Stolen Goods the Precious Objects of Art.” • Epilogue: Veronese 2020

About the Author

Cynthia Saltzman is the author of Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece and Old Masters, New World: America's Raid on Europe's Great Pictures. She has written for Forbes and The Wall Street Journal.