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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


Napoleon's Theft of Veronese's Feast

Cynthia Saltzman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



“Send me a list of the pictures, statues, cabinets and curiosities”

Jealous of all glory, [Bonaparte] wanted to surround himself with the brilliance of the arts and sciences.

—Duchess of Abrantès

Almost from the start of the 1796 French campaign against the Austrians in Italy, art was on Napoleon Bonaparte’s mind.

“Above all, send me a list of the pictures, statues, cabinets and curiosities at Milan, Parma, Piacenza, Modena and Bologna,” he demanded on May 1 in a letter to Guillaume Faipoult, the French envoy in Genoa. The cities he named were famous for their paintings—stockpiles built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by some of the most extravagant patrons of Renaissance art—the Viscontis, the Sforzas, the Farneses, the Estes, and the popes.

Bonaparte was aiming for collections of the highest quality—art that he imagined would enhance the prestige of the new museum in Paris at the Louvre. The Louvre had opened as the Musée Français only three years before, on August 10, 1793, during the Terror, when France’s most celebrated painter, Jacques-Louis David, and the Committee of Public Safety transformed the palace of the Bourbons into a public gallery of art, granting French citizens access to the royal collections of antiquities, paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts that now, in theory, were theirs.

At that point, Bonaparte was in Turin, still far from the places he hoped to plunder. But he was advancing east. He had been in Italy only a month. Earlier, on March 2, in Paris, he had officially taken command of France’s Army of Italy. A week later, he married Josephine de Beauharnais. Within two days, he had left for Nice, where he met the French troops.

As commander of the Army of Italy, Bonaparte was charged with driving the Austrians from the Duchy of Milan, which covered most of Lombardy and had been ruled by the Habsburgs for nearly a century. France was also fighting Austria in the Rhineland, so the Directory had dismissed Italy as the less important of the two fronts. At best, they hoped Bonaparte (with some forty-nine thousand troops) would divert Austria’s allied forces (of some eighty thousand) away from the fighting in the north.

Bonaparte had come to the Italian campaign well prepared. The previous year he had worked at the Topographical Department of the Committee of Public Safety, the war ministry’s strategic planning office in Paris, formulating the offensive to defeat the Austrians in Italy. He had articulated these agendas to the war minister Louis-Gustave Doulcet de Pontécoulant, who recalled how they “gushed out of him like a volcano sends up the lava it has held back.”

To reach the Austrians in Milan, Bonaparte had first to dispense with Piedmont-Sardinia, a kingdom in the northwest of Italy that was ruled by the vacillating Austrian ally Victor Amadeus III. Bonaparte also had to contend with other Italian states—the Duchies of Parma, Modena, and Tuscany; the Republics of Genoa and Venice; and the Papal States—a collection of provinces that covered much of northern and central Italy.

Bonaparte won his first victory against the Austrians on April 12, at Montenotte, a village on the steep slopes of the Apennines, twelve miles from the Ligurian Sea. “Everything tells us that today and tomorrow will leave their marks on history,” Bonaparte assured General André Masséna the night before the battle.

From the start, the French army had progressed at a fast pace. “We do not march, we fly,” wrote one of the officers. With this sudden acceleration, Bonaparte imposed his method of warfare on what had been a slow-moving, undecided four-year campaign.

France’s war with Austria was a conflict set off by the Revolution, and the response of Europe’s monarchs to the fate of the French king. On June 20, 1791, Louis XVI had fled Paris with Marie-Antoinette and their children, hoping to reach Vienna and take refuge with the queen’s brother, the Austrian emperor Leopold II. At Varennes, close to the border of the Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium), the king was arrested, and he was soon taken back to the French capital. He continued to reside in the Tuileries Palace, under effective house arrest. In August, Emperor Leopold and Frederick William II of Prussia warned (in the Declaration of Pillnitz) that the French king’s situation was of “common interest” to the European monarchs. Stirred up by fears that the Austrians now threatened France’s constitutional monarchy, the Legislative Assembly and Louis XVI (who secretly hoped France would lose) launched the war against Austria in April 1792.

Four months later, on August 10, in Paris, armed political militants stormed the Tuileries and massacred some six hundred Swiss Guards. That day, Louis XVI was taken prisoner and the French monarchy collapsed. Bonaparte, then an artillery captain of twenty-two, happened to be in Paris and “ventured into” the Tuileries Gardens. “Never since has any of my battlefields struck me by the number of dead bodies as did the mass of the Swiss,” he would recall. In December, France’s newly elected National Convention, which had established a republic, put Louis XVI on trial for treason, found him guilty, and voted to condemn him to death.

On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI was taken by carriage to the Place de la Révolution, formerly the Place Louis XV (and later the Place de la Concorde), where he was guillotined. An artist ran off an edition of prints that shows the executioner holding the king’s head above the crowd.

The French king’s execution that January only raised the stakes for the Austrian emperor and the Prussian king, who soon added allies—Britain, Spain, the Dutch Republic, the Holy Roman Empire, Piedmont, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies—to build the First Coalition against the French. Already, in November 1792, the National Convention had voted to take the Revolution abroad, by assisting all peoples seeking to “recover their liberty.” In August 1793, a French levée en masse, or conscription, aimed to raise an army of three hundred thousand men.

Bonaparte envisioned that he would quickly defeat the Austrians in northern Italy, and advance toward Vienna. “I march tomorrow against Beaulieu,” he told the Directory on April 28, referring to the Austrian general Jean-Pierre de Beaulieu. “I will oblige him to cross the Po, I will pass it immediately after him, I will take all of Lombardy, and, in less than a month, I hope to be in the mountains of the Tyrol, to find the Army of the Rhine, and with it carry the war into Bavaria.” The directors had mentioned nothing about heading to Austria, but only weeks after taking charge, Bonaparte alerted them to what he intended to do whether they approved or not.

In Italy, the Directory would soon give Bonaparte another charge—to plunder it. “The resources which you will procure are to be dispatched towards France,” they wrote on May 16, 1796. “Leave nothing in Italy which our political situation will permit you to carry away, and which may be useful to us.” The French Republic needed funds, and its Army of Italy required equipment. “Everything is lacking and especially transport,” Cristoforo Saliceti, the French government’s commissioner, had written to Lazare Carnot, a director in charge of the military, in February from Nice. “No preparations have been made to enter on campaign.” The commanders “say they cannot march because they need mules and supplies, either in fodder, for the transport and the cavalry, or medical supplies.” Saliceti then proposed that the army exploit the resources they found in Italy: “Would it not be more useful and more correct to procure them [supplies] from the enemy, to attack in providing for the needs of the moment?”

Bonaparte took no time in turning the army’s situation around. “Misery has led to indiscipline,” he wrote. “And without discipline there can be no victory.” He asked Faipoult to secure a loan of three million francs from bankers in Genoa. With that, Saliceti bought mules, wheat, clothes, and shoes.

After Bonaparte’s victory at Montenotte, others followed within days. On April 13 and 14, at Millesimo and Dego, the French again defeated the Austrians. Austria’s 5,700 casualties from the three battles were more than triple the 1,500 suffered by France. Within a week, at Ceva, and then at Mondovì, Bonaparte took on Piedmont and triumphed again. Afterward, he forced Mondovì to provide sixteen thousand rations of meat and eight thousand bottles of wine. From nearby Acqui, he ordered clothing and boots. “Napoleon did nothing drastic strategically or tactically,” argues the historian Steven Englund. “But under his hand the army and its divisional commanders performed the familiar routines of march and countermarch, attack and fallback, feint and envelopment, so well and so swiftly that they struck with the force of the new.”

On April 23, the Piedmont commander requested a cease-fire. Napoleon brushed him off: fighting would continue until he handed over three forts—Coni, Tortona, and Alexandria—to the French. Within five days, the Piedmont king had agreed. On April 28, in Cherasco, some thirty miles south of Turin, Bonaparte signed an armistice.

Bonaparte was “always cold, polished and laconic,” wrote Joseph-Henri Costa de Beauregard, who negotiated the peace terms for Piedmont. Afterward, they had supper. Bonaparte “rested his elbows upon the balcony of a window to watch the day break,” recalled Beauregard. They had talked for over an hour. “The intellect was dazzled by the superiority of his talents, but the heart remained oppressed.”

Few had ever encountered the rapid-fire pace set by Bonaparte, who did many things at once. In the first nine days of the offensive, he sent off fifty-four letters to his generals. On April 20, he wrote six letters, and after midnight, three more. This barrage of words continued, and by the end of the year he would send some eight hundred pieces of correspondence—letters and dispatches.

That spring in Italy, the French army’s early momentum never slackened. On April 30, the French started in Acqui, not far from Genoa; on June 3, they would arrive in Verona—150 miles to the east. Later, before the battle of Castiglione, General Pierre-François Augereau would drive his troops 50 miles in 36 hours, or at close to twice the average speed of the enemy. Bonaparte himself was always on the move. In one three-day period, he ran his horses at a pace that left five dead.

On May 6, Bonaparte had asked the Directory to send him “three or four known artists to choose what is fitting to take to send to Paris.” The Directory had been thinking along the same lines. The day after Bonaparte wrote, but before receiving his letter, Lazare Carnot and two other directors, Louis-Marie de La Révellière-Lépeaux and Étienne-François Letourneur, “invited” him to appoint “one or several artists to research, collect, and ship to Paris the objects of this sort that are the most precious.”

They repeated the revolutionary theme that the French Republic was the rightful heir to genius: “The Executive Directory is convinced, Citizen General, that you see the glory of the Fine Arts as attached to that of the army you command. Italy owes to them [the Fine Arts] a great part of its riches and its fame; but the time has come when their reign must pass to France to solidify and embellish that of liberty.”

The directors emphasized that the purpose of Napoleon’s art appropriations in Italy was to strengthen the contents of the new gallery at the Louvre: “The National Museum should hold the most famous monuments of all the arts, and you will not neglect enriching it with those pieces for which it waits from the present conquests of the Army of Italy and those that are still to come.”

In their orders to plunder, the directors followed a policy carried out in the Austrian Netherlands under Maximilien Robespierre and the Terror. On June 26, 1794, after the French had defeated the Austrians at Fleurus, they emptied the cathedral in Antwerp of its altarpieces by Peter Paul Rubens, The Descent from the Cross and The Raising of the Cross, and hauled them by cart, along with cannons and other artillery, back to Paris. On September 23, some of the 150 pictures chosen in the Austrian Netherlands arrived in the French capital. Five days later, the Rubens paintings went on view at the Louvre. The French justified these thefts less as a consequence of victory than as the right of the new republic—as acts of liberation, not plunder. On September 24, Luc Barbier, an artist and hussar lieutenant who had accompanied the Belgian pictures to France, spoke to the National Convention, invoking the revolutionary ideology with which the French recast their seizing of art in political terms: “The fruits of genius are the patrimony of liberty.… For too long these masterpieces have been soiled by the gaze of servitude.… The immortal works of Rubens, Van Dyck and the other founders of the Flemish school are no longer on alien soil.… They are today delivered to the home of the arts and of genius, the land of liberty and equality, the French Republic.”

Already, the directors were looking south to Rome, then the unquestioned art capital of Europe. In a letter to Bonaparte dated May 7, they emphasized the artistic wealth he would find in the papal city: “Some of its beautiful monuments, its statues, its paintings, its medals, its libraries, its bronzes, its Madonnas of silver, and even its bells would compensate for the costs of the visit you will make.”

Two years before, Abbé Henri Grégoire, who had advised the French on the confiscations from the Austrian Netherlands, envisioned the art that the French might acquire if they expanded the war as far as Rome. He had addressed the Convention: “Certainly, if our victorious armies penetrate into Italy, the removal of the Apollo Belvedere and of the Farnese Hercules would be the most brilliant conquest.”

As the Directory was ordering Bonaparte to lay claim to the masterpieces of Italy, he struggled to control looting by his soldiers, and he dispensed severe punishment to stop it. After the victory in Mondovì, the French soldiers had ravaged the town. “In every village, in every country house, in every hamlet, everything is pillaged and devastated,” a French officer reported to Bonaparte. “Bed linen, shirts, old clothes, shoes, everything, is taken from the unfortunate inhabitants of a cottage.… If he does not hand over his money, he is beaten senseless.… Everywhere inhabitants flee.”

On April 22, in his order of the day, Bonaparte congratulated his soldiers for their hard work but denounced the “frightful pillaging.” He protested that when he arrived, the army “was under the influence of disaffected agitators, without bread, without discipline and without order. I made some examples. I took every step I could to reorganize the commissariat; and victory did the rest.” Later, Bonaparte insisted to the troops that he would “not tolerate brigands to soil our laurels. Looters will be shot mercilessly; several have been already.”

As he moved east, Bonaparte led the Austrians to believe he would ford the Po close to Milan. Instead, he crossed the river at Piacenza on May 7 and invaded the Duchy of Parma. In Parma, he met little resistance. Following the Directory’s instructions, Bonaparte insisted that the war in Italy pay for itself, that his defeated enemies cough up supplies for the troops and cash, some of which he would dispatch to the impoverished government in Paris. In a treaty signed on May 9, he forced the Duke of Parma to surrender to the French large quantities of wheat (1,100 tons) and oats (550 tons), as well as currency amounting to 2 million francs and 1,700 horses. To this, he added “twenty pictures, among those currently residing in the duchy.”

Art stood apart from the other indemnities. One work of art is not like another, in character and quality, in aesthetic or monetary value. By the late eighteenth century, paintings and sculpture were tradable assets, which could be sold to dealers in London or Paris. Bonaparte made clear he understood the game and claimed he knew what he wanted; the twenty pictures would be “at the choice of the General-in-Chief.”

On the day he signed the treaty, Bonaparte informed the directors that he had gotten hold of Parma’s finest works of art: “As soon as possible, I will send you the most beautiful pictures of Correggio, among others, a Saint Jerome, which is said to be his masterpiece.” He then seemed to joke about the tribulations the Revolution had caused the French Catholic church: “I must say this saint has chosen a bad time to arrive in Paris; I hope you will give him a place of honor in the Museum.” He repeated his “request for a few known artists to take charge of the choice and transport of the fine things we shall see fit to send to Paris.”

Bonaparte emphasized that “the celebrated painting of Saint Jerome is highly esteemed in this country,” and that the Duke of Parma had “offered a million to buy it back.” He recognized that no small part of the public fascination with masterpieces came from their financial worth.

Correggio was one of the most renowned of Parma’s painters, and the French artist Charles-Nicolas Cochin, in his 1758 guidebook Voyage d’Italie, had called the Madonna of Saint Jerome “one of the most beautiful & most esteemed [paintings] in Italy.” In this picture, painted between 1523 and 1530, an angel, who turns the pages of Saint Jerome’s Bible, and an elegant Mary Magdalene crowd around the Madonna and Child, bringing their spiritual realm down to a courtly earth.

France’s Jacques-Louis David and the Americans Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley were among the artists who in the eighteenth century traveled to Parma to study Correggio’s paintings. Earlier, according to a contemporary guidebook, the Duke of Parma had fended off attempts by the kings of Portugal and Prussia to purchase the Madonna of Saint Jerome. As Correggio painted mostly frescoes, his canvases were rare and expensive. In 1746, Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, had paid the Duke of Modena 6,500 pounds for Correggio’s Reclining Magdalene, spending a sum that could have bought close to one thousand horses on a picture measuring only slightly more than one square foot.

A contemporary drawing shows a dozen French soldiers at work in the Duke of Parma’s gallery, the pictures already stripped from its walls. Large crates lie open on the floor. Three soldiers are hauling the Correggio to a box marked “St Jérôme du Corrège.” Statues have been lined up, ready to be packed.

“I cannot express the pain that such a loss [of the Correggio] has caused his Royal Highness and all the citizens of the town,” wrote Cesare Ventura, the Duke of Parma’s minister, to Ignacio Lopez de Ulloa, a Spanish envoy, on May 2. Through two delegates in Paris, the duke would spend seven futile months trying to strike the works of art from Bonaparte’s treaty.

The defeat of Parma opened a path for the French army to move toward Milan. In prying paintings from the Duke of Parma, Bonaparte knew that he was stripping the duchy of assets of incalculable value, property tied to its history, its culture and identity. Their loss delivered a sharp blow to a neutral state, which he had declared to be his enemy. In this way, Bonaparte used art as a weapon of war.

Attributed to Charles Meynier, The Correggio Madonna of Saint Jerome Is Taken from the Academy of Parma and Delivered to the French Commissioners (May 1796), ca. 1802–1814. On the right, three men are moving the famous Correggio to a crate on the floor.

“Fire must be concentrated on a single point, and as soon as the breach is made the equilibrium is broken and the rest is nothing,” stated a document probably composed by Bonaparte outlining a strategy to beat the Austrians in Italy. He was speaking of battle. But plundering art was also designed to tip a balance, to rattle foes, to leave a wound close to their hearts, and to make something permanent of military defeat. The appropriation of art put requisitions into a metaphysical dimension. To suddenly take possession of Parma’s Renaissance masterpieces gave what otherwise would be a relatively insignificant conquest the weight of history and contributed to Napoleon’s sense of imperial destiny. A master of tactics and strategy, Bonaparte also grasped that intangibles—drive, courage, inspiration—dictated success in warfare. “Moral force rather than numbers decides victory,” he wrote. “The moral is to the physical as three is to one.”

Bonaparte also understood that by seizing works of art, the victor could transform the glory of conquest into tangible form. He used the spoils of the Italian campaign to play to the Paris public. On June 8, 1796, the armistice with Parma was published in the journal La Décade philosophique. And on July 2, L’Historien printed the list of paintings chosen for the Louvre.

With the Parma treaty, Bonaparte was again operating outside the chain of command. The Directory could hardly object. Oddly, when they informed him that they approved the terms of the armistice, they referred to the art levies, seemingly without irony, as “the gift that the prince wants to make us of several beautiful paintings to adorn the national museum.”

In Paris, on May 17, Charles Delacroix, the foreign minister (and the father of the artist Eugène Delacroix), congratulated Bonaparte on putting the art indemnities (the right to “choose twenty paintings from all those in this duchy”) into the armistice documents, observing that the “new treaty distinguishes you.” He added: “You have conquered like Memmius another Corinth; but you don’t ignore as he did the prize of treasures which it contains.”

Copyright © 2021 by Cynthia Saltzman