Book Club: October

Could Cynthia Saltzman's new book, Plunder, help add Italian art to the art world conversation on restitution?



The most photographed woman in the world has been social distancing and cocooning for some time now [Figure 1]. In Room 6 of the Louvre’s Denon Wing, she has smiled enigmatically for 518 years; her face a net of cracks barely held together with varnish. She must be tired by now, but every morning she is at work, wearing her craquelure with nonchalance. But, who has stopped to question what she sees from behind her bulletproof window, beyond the selfie sticks, past the never-ending tourists in their ever-changing fashions, across centuries?


Figure 1. Mona Lisa (detail) by Leonardo DaVinci, 1503. Copyright, The Louvre Museum.


The answer is the protagonist of Cynthia Saltzman’s latest book, Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast (FSG, May 2021). The millions of people, stopped in their tracks by Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503), in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, bypass a later Italian masterpiece, Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding Feast at Cana (1562­–1563) [Figure 2].


Plunder is a two-part study. On the one hand it tells the ‘biography’ of Veronese’s masterpiece from inception through to its forced relocation to Paris (where is remains upstaged by its diminutive competition), and on the other tells the story of Napoleon’s rapid expansion across Europe, with a focus on Northern Italy and the Veneto.


On the former, Saltzman provides a detailed account of the preparation and creation of Wedding, from the contract between Veronese and the church, to how the canvas was prepared and the colours selected. The author is particularly strong capturing the sense of foreboding in Venice as the French army makes its way across North Italian states. Here, the two parts of the author’s study intertwine.


The removal of Italian patrimony was not a grab-and-go supermarket sweep. For instance, Saltzman writes that it took ten days to chisel through a 26-inch wall to “free” Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints.


The Italian, Pietro Edwards, one of the first accomplished conservators of painting, who was employed by the Venetian council to conserve works in the lagoon city, advised all parties that Wedding was too fragile to travel. So, the French cut it in two.



Figure 2, The Wedding Feast at Cana, Paolo Veronese, 1562­–1563 (with detail),

Copyright, The Louvre Museum.


That many of these works were removed under “Treaty” made their acquisition by the French somewhat “legal” though it hurt the Italians (and Dutch, Austrians, Germans etc.) to comply with the ransacking (and instigated them to form their own national collections when the works were eventually, though not completely, returned). I felt particularly sorry for the Duke of Parma (grandson to both France’s King Louis XV and Spain’s King Philip V), who tried for several months to strike the region’s works of art from a treaty—but failed.


The removal of the works to Paris—to a new French Republic—was an Imperialist stratagem to assert the might of the Third Empire.


Saltzman sums this up well when they write:


To ensure Venice’s bronze horses would be understood politically as emblems of France’s ascent in the international order, they too carried labels: “Horses transported from Corinth to Rome, and Rome to Constantinople, from Constantinople to Venice, and from Venice to France. They are finally in a free land” [140–41].


There was disbelief in France and “abroad” in response to this plunder.


Karl Heinrich Heydenreich, a philosopher in Leipzig, declared it “a crime against humanity” [141], while in France influential thinkers such as the Abbé Grégoire and Quatremère de Quincy pointed out the moral and hermeneutic problems that arose.


Here is Grégoire writing of the removal of Peter Paul Ruebens' The Descent from the Cross (1612–1714):


The Descent from the Cross and the two other large pictures painted on wood which have reached us from Belgium at enormous expense, may they not have lost more by being removed that we have gained? [...] Should such things have been brought to such a people at so great expense and from so far? [1]

The “great expense” Grégoire writes of here is not just monetary; by the end of the Napoleonic wars Europe lost between five and six million lives.


Abbé Grégoire and de Quincy also worried about the secularisation of the religious works of art, such as Wedding, whose meanings changed once they were presented in a new museum and art historical context.


After Napleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the French did their best to retain works of art in Paris, and in many cases succeeded. Saltzman writes, “Of the 506 paintings the French had seized in Italy, Denon succeeded in keeping 248 in France” [218]. This is Vivant Denon, the first Director of the Louvre, devoted servant to Napoleon, and the mastermind overseeing the plunder of artworks across Europe.


Today, the Mona Lisa (which was not plundered, but entered the French Royal collection, purchased by Francis I in 1518) and Wedding sit in Denon’s “wing” of the Louvre. This last point; that Denon is something of a national treasure should make some feel uneasy given his wholesale plunder. And while France is taking great strides in its work repatriating African art, might there also be an argument for repatriating Italian art from the Denon wing home to Italy?


Repatriation and restitution will be major challenges in the museum sector in the twenty-first century, and rightfully so. Interestingly the Third Reich, who worked their hardest to plunder or destroy art, believed that any art plundered from German lands since 1500 should be restituted; and they evidently saw no irony in confiscating more than 21,000 works of art from Jewish collections in France.


Search the Wedding Feast at Cana on the Louvre website and for provenance you will read “transporté au Louvre en 1798”. What tricksy, ambiguous words verbs can be.


There is no benefit, other than accuracy and honesty, for the Louvre (or any other museum for that matter) to signal out to its audience by what means they came by their work. Doing so could simply raise too many questions and emotions. Despite their political beginnings, it is a mainstay of national art museums around the world to remain silent on politics , particularly when they are often on the wrong side of it.


This is the darker side to the history of art, a side that institutions are complicit in whitewashing or, as in the case above, omitting the full facts.


In the same way that the Acropolis Museum designed its stunning Athens building to leave a gap where the Parthenon (erstwhile Elgin) Marbles should be, unsuccessfully guilting the British Museum into returning the loot, so too, in Venice, the Fondaziona Giorgio Cini created a facsimile (with some assistance from the Louvre) of Wedding in the San Giorgio Maggiore refectory, where the work was carefully painted by Veronese and his team.


Venice is not low on art. Every nook and cranny of the sinking city weighs heavy with gilded frames and marble. Seeing the facsimile in place, however, makes more sense than it does towering over the Mona Lisa. Should the work ever be restituted (and by now it is probably too fragile and damaged to be so), an audience could better imagine how the Benedictine monks sat in silence, breaking their fast to feast on both bread and art, whilst listening to Latin read out loud.


Saltzman's book is not a call-to-arms for restitution in the same way that Dan Hicks' The Brutish Museums is, though it is in the landscape of books on the subject, and might push forward the conversation a step further.


In its San Giorgio Maggiore home, Wedding [Figure 3] becomes a window onto a world both biblical and contemporary (the wedding party wear “contemporary” Venetian clothes), with a sky permanently blue and benign. With Christ at the centre of the party (and the universe) a sense of order and community must have been palpable. Restituted, no longer would Wedding be overlooked wallpaper on a museum wall, it would live up to the Feast in its title; and it might make the Mona Lisa smile a little wider.