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Napoleon the art thief

A new book and exhibition focuses on the emperor’s appetite for the paintings and sculptures of the lands he conquered.

The Wedding Feat at Cana, by Paolo Veronese, 1563 - Credit: DeAgostini/Diomedia

Beneath its jewel-like paintwork, The Wedding Feast at Cana, painted in 1562-1563 by the Venetian master Paolo Veronese (1528-1588), bears the scars of its tumultuous 458-year history.

Having hung peacefully for more than two centuries in the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, in 1797 it was wrenched from the wall by Napoleon Bonaparte’s men, and taken to Paris as a prize.

It remains in the Louvre today, a silent witness to the museum’s origins as a treasure house for art stolen by Napoleon in his devastating military campaigns across Europe.

The theft of Veronese’s Feast is the subject of Napoleon’s Plunder by Cynthia Saltzman, published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death in 1821. The bicentenary is marked also by an exhibition at the Grande halle de la Villette, in Paris, that will run until December 19.

Charting Napoleon’s rise from army general to his coronation as Emperor of the French in 1804, the exhibition includes examples of the furniture and decorative arts that flourished during the empire, as well as personal items, including his campaign tent and the funeral carriage used at his burial on St Helena.

Today, Napoleon is remembered as much for his brutality as for his strategic prowess, the systematic looting of cultural objects a means of inflicting a crushing humiliation on his enemies that was matched in scale and organisation only by the Nazis. In Italy alone, Napoleon seized 200 paintings and 100 sculptures, Veronese’s Feast among them.

Napoleon embarked on his first military campaign in 1796 when, aged 26, he took command of the Army of Italy, which was tasked with taking the Duchy of Milan from Austria.

The war with Austria was a direct consequence of the French Revolution, an event that had sowed unease among Europe’s ruling houses and put France at loggerheads with its neighbours; the war was promoted in France by both revolutionaries and the monarchy, who each believed it could work in their favour.

Appointed by the Directory, a small group of men who governed the French First Republic from 1795, Napoleon took charge of his army at Nice and moved eastwards, towards Milan. From the outset, he had his eye on potential loot, and he sent word ahead to his envoys asking them to compile “a list of the pictures, statues, cabinets and curiosities at Milan, Parma, Piacenza, Modena and Bologna”.

Cynthia Saltzman writes that plundering Italy’s resources was first conceived as a revenue collection exercise by the Directory. Defeated towns and cities were stripped of food, wine, clothing and boots, the Duke of Parma required to surrender 1,700 horses, large sums of money and tonnes of wheat and oats which were sent back to the government in Paris, or used to provision the army.

Fortified by Italian resources, the French sought out prestigious trophies with which to furnish the Louvre, a royal palace seized during the Terror and turned over to the people and the glory of the Republic.

Napoleon understood very well the value of art beyond its financial worth, and Saltzman writes that, “plundering art was also designed to tip a balance, to rattle foes, to leave a wound close to their hearts, and to make something permanent of military defeat”. Looting was recast as liberation, with prized objects viewed as the rightful possessions of the French Republic.

As such, Napoleon sought out the finest examples of painting, sculpture, furniture and antiquities, eventually amassing thousands of objects from across Europe, Egypt and Syria.

Venetian oil painting represented the heights of Renaissance achievement, the city’s three great 16th century masters – Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese – responsible for new feats of naturalism, narrative power and illusionistic complexity.

Though Jan van Eyck had began to explore oil paint in the mid-15th century, it was in Venice that the potential of the new medium was fully realised. As a major port on the Silk Route, canvas and pigments were readily available in Venice; for large-scale projects, oil paint offered a practical alternative to fresco, which was unsuited to the damp climate of the lagoon. Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese all undertook commissions for large scale decorative schemes in oils, their innovative use of glazes allowing them to render colour and tone like never before.

Measuring a colossal 6.77m by 9.94m (approximately 22 x 32 feet) Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana was commissioned by the Benedictine monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, to fill the entire end wall of its new refectory, designed by Andrea Palladio in 1560.

The painting reimagined Christ’s miraculous transformation of water into wine as a contemporary Venetian feast, a scene that appeared to be unfolding in the extended space of the refectory due to its scale, the inclusion of painted architectural features, and Veronese’s skilful rendering of space.

In part a riposte to Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, 1495-98, in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, the painting was a bold demonstration of Veronese’s unmatched virtuosity; his contract stipulated that he must use the best quality pigments and that only he and not his assistants should work on the painting.

By the time Napoleon’s army were advancing on Venice, the city was only a shadow of the great maritime and trading power that it had been in the 16th century. Though it stood en route to Milan, the Venetian Republic hoped that its declared neutrality would protect it from invasion.

In the end it only served to antagonise the French, and Napoleon declared it necessary “to wipe the Venetian name from the face of the map”. The treaty that followed was punitive: in addition to five fully fitted out warships and a payment of three million francs, Venice was to give up 20 paintings and 500 manuscripts.

Charged with choosing the loot was the chemist Claude Berthollet, one of six “men of merit” sent from Paris to assist with the plunder of Italian cities, under the auspices of the Government Commissioners for Research on Objects of Science and Art.

The Italian campaign was focused on art, but the wider remit of the commission was to acquire objects of scientific interest, and Berthollet’s colleagues included the mathematician Gaspard Monge, two botanists, a sculptor and a painter.

The commission’s scientific leanings had a further purpose, writes Saltzman, as they “endowed the research commission with intellectual weight and credibility. With the scientist and the mathematician, the Directory hoped to persuade the rest of Europe that France was justified in looting Italy’s art, to portray this quest as sanctioned by the philosophes, and to link it to the aims of the French Enlightenment”.

As the city’s chief restorer, responsible for the Venetian government’s art collection, Pietro Edwards was the obvious choice to assist the French in their decision making, and to supervise the packing of the pictures for transportation.

Born in Italy to English parents, Edwards was a fascinating character, who Saltzman describes as a pioneer of painting conservation who “often cried doom over the plight of Venice’s troves of paintings”. The list of paintings destined for France “caused me great pain”, he wrote, deeply distressed by the “detachment from our once celebrated walls of those precious testaments to our national greatness and genius.”

The 18 paintings and two sculptures chosen by Berthollet amounted to a roll call of Venice’s finest artists. On the list were Titian, Tintoretto, and Giovanni Bellini, the painter often credited as the father of oil painting in Italy. In addition to the Feast, the commissioners had selected five further Veroneses, which, like almost every other painting on the list, would all need to be removed, with some difficulty, from the architectural settings for which they had originally been painted.

Edwards was deeply concerned about the risk of damage to the paintings, and he warned the commissioners that the Feast was one of four paintings that might not survive the journey to Paris.

The painting was taken down even so, the canvas ripping in three places as it parted company with the wall and the nails that held it in place. The canvas was then wrapped around a cylinder and packed into a 22-foot-long crate, with a number of further canvases placed on top of it. The crate and the rest of the Venetian loot then embarked on a 10-month journey to Paris, by sea and canal.

The suffering inflicted on Venice did not end with the loss of its greatest art: in October 1797, the French turned Venice over to the Austrians, destroying its Arsenal and taking charge of its fleet before leaving. The doge’s ceremonial barge was destroyed, and four bronze horses, themselves looted during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, were taken from the façade of St Mark’s basilica.

The horses were among the first objects to be returned after the fall of Napoleon in 1815, and eventually, after considerable wrangling, 15 of the 18 pictures stolen from Venice would be returned. The Feast was not among them, having been deemed too fragile to be removed.

War has forced the Feast from Paris twice, but these days there are more concerns about the risks posed to the painting during conservation work than by deliberate acts of destruction.

Though the Feast raises questions about the restitution of looted art, it is a rare instance of an apparently acceptable compromise being found. In 2006, a full-scale, three-dimensional replica of the painting was installed on the wall of the refectory at San Giorgio Maggiore, returning the painting to its ongoing dialogue with Palladio’s austere architectural setting.

Napoleon’s Plunder, by Cynthia Saltzman, is published by Thames & Hudson 

Napoléon is at the Grande halle de la Villette, Paris, until December 19; visit expo-napoleon.fr