Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on May 11, 2021. It tells the history of Napoleon’s looting of Europe’s art through the story of The Wedding Feast at Cana, a Renaissance masterpiece painted in 1563 by Paolo Veronese in Venice and seized by the French in 1797 for the Louvre.
"In the midst of his Italian campaign, Napoleon Bonaparte stole a painting from a monastery in Venice. Cynthia Saltzman has turned this forgotten episode into a highly original work of history . . . She depicts [Napoleon], with masterly economy, as a brilliant tactician riddled with personal conceits and vanity. The author deftly shifts between Napoleon’s military conquests and his wholesale art thefts . . . Saltzman seems equally conversant with 18th-century art criticism and the period’s politics . . . Plunder is supported by prodigious research . . . [Saltzman] has written a distinctive study that transcends both art and history and forces us to explore the connections between the two."
—ROGER LOWENSTEIN, The Wall Street Journal
Saltzman traces Veronese’s secular and religious commissions and describes his practice in illuminating detail . . . In Plunder, she moves with enviable ease and clarity between periods and narratives, examining the place of Veronese in the life and art of sixteenth-century Venice, the rise of Napoleon two hundred years later, and the later fate of the plundered art. Her research is meticulous but her style is light, enlivened by acute sketches of minor characters: the crowded scene of The Wedding Feast at Cana could almost be a model for the book’s structure . . . We feel the force of Napoleon’s unstoppable progress and the zeal with which he turned the Directory’s orders into a personal project . . . As Plunder demonstrates, and as the current arguments about colonial acquisitions show, the issues of pillage and the problems of restitution have a deep, entangled history: many objects will never be returned to their rightful owners, and the complex and painful discussions around the subject will continue, without a doubt, for many years to come.”
—JENNY UGLOW, The New York Review of Books
"Saltzman’s fascinating and deeply rewarding took [is] underpinned by wide research and an impressive grasp of technique and technicalities . . . A delight to read."
— ADAM ZAMOYSKI, The Telegraph.
"Recently it [the Veronese] has hung opposite, and in the the shadow of, the ‘Mona Lisa”—a poignant end to an absorbing story of conflict and culture."
— The Economist
10 BEST BOOKS OF MAY: "Napoleon Bonaparte, one of history’s most prolific art looters, plundered famous works from across Europe to stock the newly created Louvre Museum. In this fascinating tale, art historian Cynthia Saltzman describes how he stole one of Venice’s most important paintings and why, 225 years later, it remains in Paris."
— THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, Reviewers
“Extraordinary . . . Saltzman’s latest work is an exquisite example of micro-history in which she demonstrates a meticulous attention worthy of Veronese himself while tracing his renowned painting’s fate across time and geography. In so doing, she provides her readers with intriguing and sumptuous forays into art history, military history, art restoration and preservation, the role of the museum in social and political life, the ethics of art appropriation, and the polemics of art repatriation . . . Saltzman illuminates her narrative through richly drawn profiles of the characters consequential to the destiny of The Wedding Feast at Cana, from Napoleon himself to a number of idiosyncratic curators, restorers, diplomats, and politicians.”
—JENNY MCPHEE, Air Mail
“[A] well-written, carefully constructed, artistic gem of a book . . . When Napoleon 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 hispaintings, 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 . . . Saltzman also includes a fascinating account of the struggles over restitution . . . This is an excellent book . . . Beautifully produced and handsomely illustrated, the book is an attractive and salutary account of art and war.”
—JEREMY BLACK, The New Criterion
“As Saltzman explains in this compelling account of the fragility of beauty before avarice, Napoleon made a science of plunder.. . Saltzman’s thrilling blend of historical narrative and art criticism is fitting testimony to its [The Wedding Feast at Cana’s] enduring greatness.”
— PAUL LAY, The Times, London
“Cynthia Saltzman, the author of two previous books about art, exposes the rich contradictions of the 1796 Italian campaign through the story of a prized Venetian masterpiece . . . What was Europe to make of the painting’s new home, a vast public museum stocked with war booty? In Saltzman’s scrupulous telling, there was rancor, but also awe.”
— HUGH EAKIN, The New York Times Book Review
“[A] fascinating and wide-ranging cultural history, at the center of which is the fate of one of the Renaissance’s greatest paintings . . . Among the most chilling pages of Saltzman’s forensic narrative is her account of the damage suffered by Veronese’s painting on its journey to Paris.”
— MICHAEL PRODGER, The Sunday Times
— The National Book Review; 5 HOT BOOKS
"In her deliciously satisfying narrative, Saltzman hits the history button reset on Napoleon Bonaparte by telling his history through a slant: Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding Feast at Cana, the massive masterpiece pillaged from Venice to become a crown jewel of the Louvre Museum, which would also display other great works of art looted from Italy. “The looting of art reflected the best and the worst of Napoleon’s character,” writes Salzman in her vivid, revelatory history. “Bonaparte didn’t think of himself as a plunderer. Anything but. In the Italian campaign he saw himself as a soldier, a commander, a victorious general in chief – a citizen of the Republic of France carrying the Revolution abroad, and already a statesman, a diplomat who told the people of Lombardy he was freeing them from the despotic Austrian regime."
"Superficially, you could say the painting’s journey from a Venetian cloister to the Louvre’s most-visited gallery — the “Wedding Feast” hangs directly across from the “Mona Lisa” — is the subject of Cynthia Saltzman’s Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast. But really, Saltzman uses Veronese’s “Feast” as a framework for an investigation of art theft as a cultural strategy. Using a mix of art, military, and intellectual history, she argues that controlling art is a powerful way to control hearts and minds. . . .She shines, however, as an intellectual historian. Plunder is at its best when Saltzman describes — and dissects — the philosophical and nationalistic underpinnings of France’s art kleptomania."
— LILY MEYER, Hyperallergic
"By recounting the long, strange journey of this painting through unsuspected wars, bloodshed, perilous seas, and finally, its close escape from Nazi hands, Saltzman makes one appreciate the beauty of The Wedding Feast at Cana anew. That it still exists is a miracle all by itself. I hope she will keep on looking for new miracles."
—MERYLE SECREST, The American Scholar
Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast, by Cynthia Saltzman ’71 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30). “Napoleon Bonaparte was a plunderer of art, one of history’s most accomplished,” writes Saltzman, of the cultural project accompanying his political ones. She focuses on the 1797 theft of Paolo Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana, from the wall of a monastery in Venice, where it had been painted more than two centuries earlier in a superb space proportioned by Andrea Palladio. The Louvre, one is reminded, did not just emerge as a staggering museum (the Veronese hangs opposite the Mona Lisa), and cultural appropriation is not solely a problem of the past.
—Harvard Magazine, May-June 2021
“Plunder" is brief, just 232 pages, before footnotes and color plates. Still, in the spare details Ms. Saltzman chooses, the characters come alive. . . In a 1660 poem, Marco Boschini called him [Veronese] "the painter of beautiful things" that, adds Ms. Saltzman in her elegant prose, seem more beautiful than the things themselves.”
— ELLEN T. WHITE, East Hampton Star
“The theft of The Wedding Feast at Cana was only one of many, many thuggish desecrations committed by Napoleon Bonaparte in his career, which might make it seem an unlikely subject for an entire book, but Cynthia Saltzman has mined a comparatively minor bit of cultural vandalism and produced an absolute gem: Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast tells the story of the theft of the painting, the stir it made when it arrived in France, the personality of the thief, and, most winningly of all, the working life of the painter, who died centuries before Bonaparte got his chubby little hands on the canvas. It’s a lot to cram into 300 pages, but at every moment Saltzman maintains a smooth, easy control over all of it. Plunder is captivating reading, a chronicle full of outsized personalities.”
— STEVE DONOGHUE, Open Letters Review
"The fascination of Saltzman’s splendid book lies to a significant degree in her subtle contrast of the tumultuous immensity of Bonaparte’s aspirations and the serenity of Veronese’s painting, a celebration of those values which the egotistic emperor never had time to contemplate. . . . Thoroughly at ease in the Venetian Renaissance and French imperial worlds, Cynthia Saltzman tells this story with Veronesian panache. There are a few lessons here too for the world’s museum curators as they delib- erate what happens next to their own spoils of empire."