visited Paris for the pictures the French had stolen’
William Riviere, A Venetian Theory of Heaven, Sceptre, 1992
The work which came immediately to my mind when I read this sentence in A Venetian Theory of Heaven, was Paolo Veronese’s (1528 – 1588) Wedding of Cana which today hangs in the Denon Wing of the Louvre Museum (in the same room as the Mona Lisa) after it was looted by Napoleon from the refectory of the Benedictine monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore.
The refectory was built to a design by Palladio and completed in 1562. The friars commissioned the painting from Veronese in 1562, insisting that the work be monumental and Veronese certainly delivered– the work originally measured 70m2 (it is the largest work in the collection of the Louvre museum).
The Wedding of Cana hung in the refectory for 235 years until Napoleon ordered that the work be confiscated. It was torn from the wall, cut in half for the journey, rolled up like a carpet and shipped to Paris in 1797. As a result, the painting suffered from significant paint loss and it underwent restoration in the 18th and 19th centuries, but records from these works are incomplete.
During the French Republican and Napoleonic eras, looting became a military tactic by victorious armies. Napoleon established the first official military division dedicated to seizing and shipping captured artworks. Specially-trained personnel would follow behind the army to inventory, pack, and ship art.
Stealing art from vanquished countries was a morale booster, and looted masterpieces were moved to the recently converted Louvre museum, where Napoleon’s art advisor Dominique Vivant Denon became the museum’s first director (remember which wing of the Louvre museum houses this work?).
In 1992, whilst undergoing restoration, the Louvre was embarrassed by two separate incidents with The Wedding of Cana – it was first spattered by water from a leaking air vent and just a few days later, as museum workers were raising the 1.5 ton painting to a higher position on the wall, one of the supports collapsed and the entire painting fell. The accident tore five holes in the painting.