Plunder Dissects Napoleon’s Obsession with Stealing Art

In May of 1796, the French Directory ordered Napoleon Bonaparte, its star general, to steal some art. Napoleon was in Venice, waging war against Austria, plus a shifting array of Italian states. Each time he conquered a new city, he plundered its greatest artistic treasures, shipping home trophies ranging from ancient Greek statues to the Venetian High Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese’s “Wedding Feast at Cana,” which had never before been taken from the secluded monastery whose abbot commissioned it in the late sixteenth century. Superficially, you could say the painting’s journey from a Venetian cloister to the Louvre’s most-visited gallery — the “Wedding Feast” hangs directly across from the “Mona Lisa” — is the subject of Cynthia Saltzman’s Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast. 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.  

Napoleon certainly saw his systematic art appropriation as a tactic of war. He was a shrewd strategist, always seeking to demoralize as well as defeat his opponents. Swiping a state’s cultural patrimony fell squarely in the former category. It gave his battlefield wins a “metaphysical dimension.” It also helped prop up the new French Republic’s self-image. At the time of the Napoleonic Wars, France saw itself as an Enlightenment superpower: not only the strongest country in Europe, but also, as the painter-soldier Luc Barbier put it, “‘the home of the arts and of genius, of liberty and equality.’” According to Barbier, whose logic Saltzman presents as representative of French Republican thinking, works of genius were “‘the patrimony of liberty,’” and therefore rightly belonged to France, where “freedom” lived. This argument concealed a more practical demand. France had a new museum — the Louvre — and it needed stocking. Napoleon, on the Directory’s orders, filled it with the spoils of war.

The cover of Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast by Cynthia Saltzman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021; image courtesy the publisher)

Saltzman is not especially interested in drama or characterization; the “Wedding Feast at Cana” comes closer to being Plunder’s protagonist than Napoleon does. Readers looking to understand the Napoleonic Wars should go elsewhere. She shines, however, as an intellectual historian. Plunder is at its best when Saltzman describes — and dissects — the philosophical and nationalistic underpinnings of France’s art kleptomania. During the time of the Republic, she writes, France’s leaders wanted badly to show “their modernity [and] their support for the Enlightenment,” which they believed justified plundering. According to the Enlightenment, “great works of art should be accessible”; thus, the argument went, it was legitimate to steal “The Wedding Feast at Cana” from the monastic refectory where it hung. Relying heavily on primary sources, Saltzman exposes the nationalistic propagandism underlying this supposedly egalitarian scheme. Once full and open, the Louvre offered privileged access to foreign tourists — that is, to those who might condemn France for plundering. A traveling Brit had a much easier time getting into the Louvre, which was designed to dazzle its visitors into uncritical admiration, than the average French citizen, who perhaps did not so urgently need to be persuaded that France had a right to its plunder. As Emperor, Napoleon famously used art to demonstrate his power. According to Saltzman, the Louvre, in its first incarnation, was an example of France doing the same. In historical retrospect, this seems like clear intellectual preparation for the nation’s massive post-Napoleonic colonizing push; less than 30 years after Napoleon stole Italy’s art, France was stealing nations’ sovereignty across the globe. 

When Napoleon brought his plunder home from Italy, the French Republic welcomed it with a parade at which attendees sang, “‘Rome is no longer in Rome, / it is all in Paris.’” Around the same time, the French painter Antoine-Jean Gros, visiting the Vatican as a plundering consultant of sorts to Napoleon, wrote to his mother that, although France had “‘skimmed the cream’” from the papal collection, “‘there is still an innumerable quantity of beautiful things.’” France coveted that innumerability — and got it. At Plunder’s end, the Louvre still overflows with non-French masterpieces. The Hague Convention forced France to return some of its plunder after Napoleon’s empire fell, but not all. Veronese’s “Wedding Feast at Cana,” made fragile by its trip to France, hangs there still.

Saltzman is not willing to condemn the Louvre outright, though she is conspicuously unwilling to admit the validity — even if partial — of the Enlightenment case for making art as easily available as possible. Ultimately, however, she positions the museum as one of Napoleon’s “lasting legacies,” inextricably linked to theft and war. In doing so, she joins a growing number of artists, gallerists, journalists, and critics holding museums accountable for their collections’ pasts, and their own. Consider the growing movement, led by photographer Nan Goldin, to force the art world out of bed with the Sackler family, inventors and pushers of OxyContin. Goldin’s fight is far more urgent than Saltzman’s, yet they have common philosophical ground. 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.

Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Cynthia Saltzman, is now available on Bookshop.

Using a mix of art, military, and intellectual history, Cynthia Saltzman argues that controlling art is a powerful way to control hearts and minds.Read MoreBooks, Cynthia Saltzman, Farrar Straus and Giroux, Napoleon, ReviewsHyperallergicRead More

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