One of The Christian Science Monitor’s Ten Best Books of May
“A highly original work of history . . . [Saltzman] has written a distinctive study that transcends both art and history and forces us to explore the connections between the two.” —Roger Lowenstein, The Wall Street Journal
A captivating study of Napoleon’s plundering of Europe’s art for the Louvre, told through the story of a Renaissance masterpiece seized from Venice
Cynthia Saltzman’s Plunder recounts the fate of Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana, a vast, sublime canvas that the French, under the command of a young Napoleon Bonaparte, tore from a wall of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, on an island in Venice, in 1797. Painted in 1563, the Renaissance picture had been immediately hailed as a masterpiece. Veronese had spread the scene across the end wall of the monastery’s refectory and filled it with some 130 figures, lavishing color on the canvas to build the illusion that the biblical banquet was taking place on a terrace in sixteenth-century Venice. Once it was pulled from its frame, the canvas crossed the Mediterranean rolled on a cylinder, bound for Paris; soon after, artworks commandeered in Venice and Rome were triumphantly brought to the French capital. In 1801, the Veronese went on exhibition at the Louvre, the new public art museum founded during the Revolution, in the former palace of the French kings.
As Saltzman tells the larger story of Napoleon’s looting of Italian art and its role in the creation of the Louvre, she reveals defining traits of his character: his desire for greatness and his ruthlessness in getting whatever he sought. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the Duke of Wellington and the Allies forced the French to return many of the paintings and sculptures they had seized. Nevertheless, the French resisted sending The Wedding Feast at Cana back to Venice, and the painting remains in Paris to this day, hanging directly opposite the Mona Lisa.
Expertly researched and deftly told, Plunder chronicles one of the most spectacular art-appropriation campaigns in history, shedding light on a seminal historical figure and the complex origins of one of the world’s great museums.