Looting dispels Napoleon’s obsession with stealing art

In May 1796, the French Directory ordered Napoleon Bonaparte, its star general, to steal art. Napoleon was in Venice, waging war on Austria, as well as a changing array of Italian states. Whenever he conquered a new city, he plundered its greatest artistic treasures, shipping trophies home ranging from ancient Greek statues to the “Wedding Party at Cana” by Venetian High Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese, which had never been removed before from the isolated monastery which the abbot commissioned at the end of the 16th century. Superficially, you could say that the journey from a painting from a Venetian cloister to the most visited gallery in the Louvre – the “Marriage Feast” is right in front of the “Mona Lisa” – is the subject of Cynthia Saltzman. Looting: Napoleon’s theft of the feast of Veronese. But really, Saltzman uses Veronese’s “Feast” as a framework for investigating art theft as a cultural strategy. Using a blend of artistic, military and intellectual history, she argues that controlling art is a powerful way to control hearts and minds.

Napoleon certainly saw his systematic appropriation of art as a tactic of war. He was a shrewd strategist, always seeking to demoralize and defeat his opponents. Sweeping the cultural heritage of a state falls squarely into the first category. This gave his victories on the battlefield a “metaphysical dimension”. It also helped to strengthen the self-image of the new French Republic. At the time of the Napoleonic wars, France saw itself as a superpower of the Enlightenment: not only the strongest country in Europe, but also, as the painter-soldier Luc Barbier said, “” the homeland of the arts and genius, of freedom ”According to Barbier, whose logic Saltzman presents as representative of French republican thought, works of genius were“ the heritage of freedom ”” and therefore rightly belonged to France, where “freedom” lived. This argument hid a more practical request. France had a new museum – the Louvre – and it needed storage. Napoleon, by order of the Directory, filled it with the spoils of war.

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

Saltzman is not particularly interested in theater or characterization; the “Wedding feast at Cana” gets closer to being Lootingprotagonist of Napoleon. Readers seeking to understand the Napoleonic Wars should look elsewhere. She shines, however, as an intellectual historian. Looting is at his best when Saltzman describes – and dissects – the philosophical and nationalist foundations of French artistic kleptomania. At the time of the Republic, she writes, the French leaders did not want to show “their modernity. [and] their support for the Enlightenment ”, which they said justified the looting. According to the Enlightenment, “great works of art should be accessible”; so, the argument went, it was legitimate to steal “the wedding feast at Cana” of the monastic refectory where it hung. Relying heavily on primary sources, Saltzman exposes the nationalist propagandism that underlies this supposedly egalitarian scheme. Once full and open, the Louvre offered privileged access to foreign tourists, that is, to those who could condemn France for looting. A British traveler had a much easier time entering the Louvre, which was designed to dazzle its visitors with uncritical awe, than the average French citizen, who perhaps did not need so urgently to be persuaded that the France was entitled to its plunder. As an emperor, Napoleon 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 appears to be a clear intellectual preparation for the nation’s massive post-Napoleonic colonizing push; less than 30 years after Napoleon stole art from Italy, France was stealing sovereignty from nations around the world.

When Napoleon brought back his booty from Italy, the French Republic greeted him with a parade in which the participants sang: “Rome is no longer in Rome, everything is in Paris.” Around the same time, the French painter Antoine- Jean Gros, visiting the Vatican as Napoleon’s plunder consultant, 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 this innumerable – and got it. AT LootingAt the end of the day, the Louvre is still full of non-French masterpieces. The Hague Convention forced France to return part of its plunder after the fall of Napoleon’s empire, but not all. Véronèse’s “Wedding Feast at Cana”, weakened by her trip to France, is still hanging there.

Saltzman is unwilling to outright condemn the Louvre, although she is clearly unwilling to admit the validity – even partial – of the Enlightenment argument to make art as readily available as possible. Ultimately, however, she positions the museum as one of Napoleon’s “enduring legacies”, inextricably linked to theft and war. In doing so, it joins a growing number of artists, gallery owners, journalists and critics who hold museums responsible for the past of their collections and theirs. Consider the growing movement, led by photographer Nan Goldin, to force the art world out of bed with the Sackler family, the inventors and pushers of OxyContin. Goldin’s fight is much more urgent than Saltzman’s, but they have common philosophical ground. Looting asks its readers to look at art museums through a combined historical and ethical prism. Many of us could also use this skill in the present tense.

Looting: Napoleon’s theft of the feast of Veronese (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Cynthia Saltzman, is now available on Bookstore.

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