Sanctimonious twaddle is what we can expect for the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death, but the man was a thug with pretensions and his empire a system of expropriation run on the back of what French critics of conscription called the “blood tax.” This contrast in perception, between those who adore the Corsican and those who deplore him, was there from the outset. Napoleon proclaimed his virtues while opponents were shot down, starting in Italy with mass executions in 1796 to suppress popular opposition to French exploitation. Napoleon’s nephew Louis Napoleon, later Napoleon III, was to claim in Des Idées Napoléoniennes (1839): “In Italy he formed a great kingdom which had its separate administration and its Italian army. . . . The name Italy, so beautiful, defunct, for so many ages, was restored to provinces which until then had been severed. That name implies in itself a future of independence.”
The reality was very different. Aside from the brutal suppression of opposition, which was achieved in part by limiting food supplies in Calabria, there was the mass conscription that led to 70,000 deaths fighting for Napoleon, as well as heavy financial burdens. Indeed, there and elsewhere, the unpopularity of the Napoleonic System helped create and accentuate divisions between state and society that remain a feature to the present day.
And, as Cynthia Saltzman, the author of Plunder, shows in this well-written, carefully constructed, artistic gem of a book, there was also a mass looting of works of art. She skillfully moves between generalities and specifics. In part, as with Hitler, with whom comparisons frequently arise, this looting was ideological: Napoleon and his followers delighting in attacking and despoiling the Church, as Hitler did, to far, far more murderous effect, against Jews. But art looting was not only a feature of Napoleonic Italy. Saltzman writes well about the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic seizure of art in the Low Countries and Germany respectively. So it was also in Spain. The destruction and despoliation of churches is readily apparent in Seville, in the monastery of Santa María de las Cuevas and the chapel at the Hospital de la Caridad there. Absence reflects Napoleon’s presence: the reproduced “Murillos” now residing at the latter hang in place of original ones taken in 1810. Two years later, the great Benedictine monastery at Montserrat in Catalonia was sacked.
His apologists might like to see Napoleon as a builder after the deadly destruction of the French Revolution, but he was a major protagonist of revolutionary violence, against the French as well as foreigners, while also leaving fresh conflict and rapine in his wake. When he invaded Egypt in 1798, he could talk the talk, or at least the clichés, of revolutionary enlightenment, but the reality, as Saltzman shows, was a monstrous egotism to which all other values and representations had to bow.
That might seem depressing, but there is also joy and interest aplenty in the book. The account of the painter Veronese’s skill, eye, and work, and of the placing of his paintings, is one of a skilled art historian who is both perceptive and gifted, showing an appreciation of the multi-faceted character of paintings and their subsequent history. Moreover, Saltzman can convey her knowledge with clarity as well as wisdom. In the particular case of The Wedding Feast at Cana (1563), the nominal subject of this book, the details of its placing in the Venetian island monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore help underline the vandalism of its removal by Napoleon in 1797. We then follow the painting on its long journey to the Louvre, where Napoleon subsequently decided in 1810 that it should be taken off the wall in order to be hung in a chapel to be constructed in the Salon Carré for his marriage to Marie Louise of Austria. When the director explained that moving the Veronese and other old master pictures was likely to damage them, Napoleon instructed him to burn them, which, instead, led to them being moved after all.
Saltzman understandably focuses on those who, through history, applauded Veronese’s achievement, although not all critics agreed. Thus, in 1755, George, Viscount Villiers thought the Wedding Feastat Cana “a prodigious work, but greatly confused,” preferring Leandro Bassano’s Raising of Lazarus (ca. 1592)in Venice’s Santa Maria della Carità, a building which was repurposed under Napoleon: “The expression in the countenances of all the figures is excellent.” In the case of The Wedding Feast, Dr. John Hinchliffe in 1762 observed the degree to which art critics repeat each other:
It is true what Montesquieu says in his little essay on Taste, that Paul Veronese makes good what he promises at first sight, though he does not like Raphael do more. The great picture at the Convent of the miracle of changing the water into wine is certainly a first-rate work. The general objection to it that the figures are not at all concerned at the miracle has been repeated over and over like many others, without any other reason than that it has been said before.
Hinchliffe favored Veronese’s Family of Darius Before Alexander (1565–70):
There is in the Pisani Palace a very capital picture of Paul’s which excepting some few errors in the drawing unites all the excellencies of the art. . . . The character of Alexander is very expressive, of a manly beauty touched with a generous compassion. The mother, wife and two daughters are on their knees before him, a family likeness is preserved through the whole, with such a just proportion of difference that age occasions. . . . The colouring is excellent.
In 1798, Randle Wilbraham found Venice sadly diminished as a result of the harsh plundering by the French, a plundering that extended to British residents, for example Frederick, “Earl-Bishop” of Derry, arrested near Ferrara that same year.
Saltzman also includes a fascinating account of the struggles over restitution. Louis XVIII was unenthusiastic about returning Napoleonic booty when his family regained power in 1814 but had to be more accommodating after Napoleon’s renewed failure in 1815. There were still grumbles by the French about restitution, complaints supported by foreign politicians who did not wish to offend the French. Nevertheless, Wellington, in command of the occupation authorities, was robust, asking why should “the powers of Europe . . . do injustice to their own subjects” solely “to conciliate” the French? The “great moral lesson” he called for, namely that the French should understand that they were weaker than a collective Europe, did not result, however, in the return of The Wedding Feast, for reasons Saltzman explains. The earlier loss of Venetian independence was a key point in lessening the pressure for restitution of this particular work.
A large jewel in the crown of the Louvre, The Wedding Feast was taken to Brittany in 1870–71 during the Franco-Prussian war and to the Vichy Zone in 1940, only returning to the Louvre in 1949. Saltzman also follows the very sad history of San Giorgio Maggiore, which the French turned into a barracks in 1806, and which subsequently suffered much destruction, notably when later used by the Austrian army.
This is an excellent book. Saltzman is of course hopelessly wrong when she claims that “the French government launched the policy of seizing art from its defeated enemies.” Nevertheless, this is an impressive contribution to the field, and one that deftly interweaves the history of the Revolution and the Napoleonic era with that of Veronese’s lifetime, and, in doing so, skillfully counterpoints Veronese with the artists of the latter era, notably David and Gros, and their creation of an artistic legend for Napoleon. Beautifully produced and handsomely illustrated, the book is an attractive and salutary account of art and war.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 10, on page 78
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