When Cynthia Saltzman was given access to the Louvre galleries after regular closing hours, the curator was flummoxed that she wasn’t interested in the Mona Lisa. She wasn’t. The painting she had come to see, Paolo Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana, is displayed directly opposite Leonardo da Vinci’s masterwork and is at the center of Saltzman’s latest book, Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast (FSG, May). The story of the painting captures history, art, commerce, politics, and Napoleon, who had Wedding Feast at Cana ripped from the wall of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice in 1797, where it had hung for over 200 years.
While fighting the Austrian Empire, Napoleon looted Italian art with abandon to fill the Louvre, a royal palace that Louis XVI had begun to convert to a museum housing the royal art collection. The French Revolution precipitated its opening to the public. As Saltzman notes, “Napoleon was in his 20s, an upstart from Corsica, determined to make his reputation.”
As a Harvard undergraduate, Saltzman switched her major from architecture to art history after taking over for the graduating art critic at the Harvard Crimson. Her change in majors, she recalls, was part of fulfilling her destiny, as someone who as a child in New York City was frequently “dragged to the Met.”
Initially Saltzman didn’t intend Plunder to be a book about one painting. “But I wanted to understand the significance of Venice’s loss and how important this painting was to France,” she says. “It influenced the impressionists, the post-impressionists, and van Gogh, who wrote about it. It’s arguably one of the most important works of art, always regarded as fabulous, and I particularly loved it.”
For Wedding Feast at Cana, Veronese used the most expensive paints to depict a banquet from the Bible set on a terrace in his contemporary 16th-century Venice, with some 130 figures in lavish costumes. “I went to Venice many times in the course of writing this book,” Saltzman says, “and every time I came away more aware of how amazing the Venetians were—how in the 16th century they created these masterpieces with brush, canvas, and paint.”
Plunder picks up themes in Saltzman’s previous two books, 1998’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a van Gogh Masterpiece and 2008’s Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures. “I write about art,” she explains, “but I’m particularly interested in writing about the transfer of art—how it’s part of cultural and financial history.”
The contract for Plunder was signed with Jonathan Galassi at FSG for U.S. and Canadian rights in 2012 on the basis of a proposal. Thames & Hudson will publish it simultaneously in the U.K. But Saltzman says she had been thinking about writing it since the late 1990s—“thinking about how to write it, it’s such a big story”—and had discussed the project early on with Melanie Jackson at the Melanie Jackson Agency, her agent for over 25 years.
“I discuss everything with Melanie,” Saltzman says. “She’s a great reader. I sent her the first draft in summer 2018. There were many drafts. There are always many drafts.”
Galassi tells me he has been obsessed with Napoleon since he was a kid. “Napoleon used art as part of his politics, his grandiosity,” he notes. “Also, what’s fascinating is, how do you get a painting that size [it measures 22’ × 32’, the largest painting in the Louvre] from Italy to France? It’s incredible—so difficult not to damage it.” And actually, according to Saltzman, though the French were forced to return the art Napoleon had stolen from Italy after he was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, the general secretary of the Louvre, Athanase Lavallée, balked at giving back the Veronese, which he insisted would be destroyed if it were moved.
“Cynthia’s book brings a piece of history very much alive,” Galassi says. He has seen Wedding Feast at Cana in the Louvre as well as the digital life-size reproduction of the painting in the refectory of the monastery in Venice. “The original location, in the dining room, gave the painting extra meaning,” he says, “because it depicts a feast. Being in the same room at the Louvre with the Mona Lisa, it gets short shrift.”
Since Galassi counts Saltzman as an old friend (as he does Jackson), he asked FSG executive editor Ileene Smith to edit Plunder. “Jonathan knew I was drawn to books about art and history with an interesting moral component,” Smith says. “Also, I had acquired and edited Philip Dwyer’s multivolume biography of Napoleon for Yale University Press. I read closely—as a lay reader, of course. And Cynthia was quite a scrupulous reader of her own prose in any event. At first she may have been a bit apprehensive—we did not know each other. But she had to have sensed my excitement about her book. Plunder is a feat of research and storytelling on a heroic scale.”
The publication date is May 11 for the 336-page hardcover, which includes eight color images as well as 32 in black and white.
Galassi says he expects “a good readership,” adding, “There’s a fascination with art, and the writing is accessible and fun. There’s also the enduring fascination with Napoleon. Was he a genius? Or a monster? This book for me is like candy. Napoleon was not a normal person: he’s Trump with talent!”