Since its completion in 1563, the 32-foot-long painting by Paolo Veronese The wedding at Cana had been an object of admiration – an image with religious resonance for the monks of Venice’s San Giorgio Maggiore who preceded it, and an image full of aesthetic significance for the countless artists it inspired. But in September 1797, it existed in a bizarre intermediate state, something that looked more like spoils of war. That year, Napoleon’s soldiers violently tore it from the walls of the refectory for which it was designed. The painting was then shipped to France.
“Once unhooked from the wall of the Benedictine monastery, rolled up around a cylinder and locked in a crate, the Wedding feast at Cana was in limbo,” writes Cynthia Saltzman in her new book, Looting: the theft of Veronese’s feast by Napoleon (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, then traveled to Arles, where it was placed aboard a ship with artwork that had been taken from Rome. By the end of July 1798 Veronese’s painting had arrived in Paris, where it was housed in the Louvre and where, with few exceptions, it has remained ever since. (A full-scale replica of the painting can now be found in San Giorgio Maggiore.) The delicate story of how The wedding at Cana got there forms the basis of Saltzman’s book, which considers the weaponization of a Renaissance masterpiece for political purposes.
It is not surprising that Napoleon and his troops were interested in The wedding at Cana-it has long been considered almost unequaled in its beauty. In the work, Veronese depicts the celebration in which Jesus Christ transfigures water into wine. Even though he placed Christ at the center of the work, Veronese boldly downplayed the human presence in the work, instead giving more attention to the talkative guests and hungry dogs who attended the feast, and to the contemporary Italian context in which Veronese placed this ancient scene. Due to the high quality paints that Veronese used for the work, the work appears intensely real, almost photographic in places. Located in an area of the refectory designed by Andrea Palladio, it seemed masterful. In 1660, the artist Marco Boschini wrote: “It’s not painting, it’s magic”.
Others would certainly have agreed. In 1705, the monks of the refectory were forced to start restricting the crowds of people coming to see him. Once hung in the Louvre, it continued to attract admirers. Call The wedding at Cana the “largest known image in the world”, Jacques-Louis David was inspired by Veronese’s piece to create his own 32-foot-long painting, The Coronation of Napoleon (1807), which also hangs in the museum. Later, Eugène Delacroix will write that he “will not fail” The wedding at Cana during one of his many visits to the museum in Paris, and Vincent van Gogh considered the Veronese evidence that painters should use color towards more expressive means.
Napoleon recognized early on that obtaining works like this would be crucial in his quest for European dominance. In 1794, he began to envision the Louvre—then only a year old—as an institution which “should contain the most famous monuments of all the arts, and you will not neglect to enrich it with the pieces it expects. current conquests. of the army of Italy.
In 1796, his troops took a number of works to Parma, including Correggio Madonna of Saint Jerome (c. 1528), which the duke of the city-state had considered an object of personal importance. “In excavating the Duke of Parma’s paintings, Bonaparte knew he was stripping the Duchy of goods of incalculable value, property tied to its history, culture and identity,” writes Saltzman. “Their loss dealt a heavy 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 be used in Venice, which was also trying 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 hand over “twenty paintings and five hundred manuscripts, to be chosen by the general in chief “. Claude Berthollet, a chemist with no formal training in art history, was chosen to select these works. He assembled his roster in just eight days; The wedding at Cana was No. 7 on it, sandwiched between two other Veroneses.
It’s clear, based on Looting, that the capture of Veronese’s painting was just a small event amid a whole heap of looting and carnage – a dot on the radar during an epic campaign for dominance. In homage to this, Saltzman skips entire chapters away from Veronese’s painting, surveying Napoleon’s conquests and providing 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 plunder of the Veroneses was a political event in itself.
The same was true for his exhibition at the Louvre, which became a way for the French to assert their dominance over other European countries. Its walls lined with iconic works illustrating the traditions of countries like France, Italy, Holland, Flanders and Germany, the Louvre began to serve as a destination for anyone interested in European art. “The Louvre came to look like what its revolutionary founders had imagined – a collection whose brilliance would catch the eye of Europe and make Paris recognized as the new Rome,” writes Saltzman.
Ironically, there were positives to The wedding at Cana exhibited at the Louvre. For one, it could be seen by more people than ever before, and no one would have to worry about the attendance restrictions put in place by the dining hall. On the other hand, Veronese’s painting was now contextualized by Renaissance artworks that would not normally have been shown alongside it.
However, not everyone who came was pleased with the Louvre’s presentation of its looted art – the German poet Friedrich Schiller wrote of the Greek art there: “For the vandal they are not only stone!” But, writes Saltzman, “most who have visited the Louvre have refused to let the violent provenance of its masterpieces interfere with the dizzying pleasure of encountering over a thousand images, all together, all at once. “.
To some extent, this is still the case. Saltzman reports that as of 2020, the wall text of the work stated that the painting was “Revolutionary Seizure, 1797”, or revolutionary capture. This label and the work are today in the Salle des Etats, where it faces the mona-lisa. Due to the crowds that flock to see Leonardo’s painting in normal conditions, it can be difficult to take a look at Veronese’s wall text.
The fact that the Louvre was always reluctant to accurately reflect the acquisition of Veronese’s work is evident from the events of the early 1800s. After the fall of the Napoleonic Empire, countries that had been robbed of their art began to salvage priceless works from the Louvre. Robert Stewart, Viscount of Castlereagh, then British Foreign Secretary, wrote: “The whole [Louvre] will soon disappear.
In 1815, as the works were torn from the walls and sent back to where they came from, the artist Antonio Canova, an emissary of Pope Pius VIII, set to work restoring Italian art. But in a letter that year, Canova claimed he never had a say in the fate of the Veroneses. Fearing that The wedding at Cana was too fragile to travel once again, museum officials struck a deal with the Austrians, who now controlled parts of Italy, including Venice, that the painting was eventually left in Paris, in exchange for some French paintings. (Because of the deal, the Venetians are still unable to file a legal request for the painting’s return, a fact Saltzman does not mention.) “Paolo’s famous Supper stays here,” Canova wrote in gritting his teeth.
It seems to have been a victory for the Louvre, but its management was still furious with all the other treasures that will soon leave the French borders. Just days after the Veronese case was concluded, Vivant Denon, the Louvre’s first director, resigned. Before leaving, he wrote an angry account of what had happened at the museum. He wrote: “Europe had to be conquered to shape it, Europe had to unite to destroy it. Today, the wing of the Louvre where Veronese’s painting hangs bears Denon’s name.