In Venice in 1562, the monks of San Giorgio Maggiore commissioned Paolo Veronese to undertake a monumental painting to decorate the far wall of the monastery’s new refectory, designed by the architect Andrea Palladio. Finished a year later, The Wedding Feast at Cana depicts the biblical story of the Marriage at Cana, at which Jesus converts water to wine. Executed in the Mannerist style of the late Renaissance, the painting shows the sumptuous feasts of food and music that were characteristic of 16th-century Venetian society. The crowded banquet scene is framed with Greek and Roman architecture from classical antiquity and from the Renaissance. In accordance with artistic tradition at the time, Veronese included himself in the banquet scene, as the musician in the white tunic. Among the other musicians in the painting are the painters Tintoretto playing a viola da braccio and Titian, dressed in red, playing the violone.
Painted in situ, The Wedding Feast at Cana is a monumental work measuring 22 feet by 32 feet. It is meant to be viewed from below, because the painting’s bottom edge was 2.50 meters from the refectory floor, behind and above the head-table of the abbot of the monastery. The painting filled the huge wall until Napoleon turned the monastery into his Venetian headquarters in 1797. He wanted the painting transferred to Paris. Venice’s chief restorer warned that the painting was far too large and far too fragile to be moved. It weighed 1.5 tons. But Napoleon’s men could not be dissuaded. The artwork was brazenly removed, wrapped in paintings by Tintoretto, Titian and Veronese and shipped off.
Upon arrival in Paris, French conservators cut the painting in two to reline it and then stitched it back together before it was hung in the refurbished great hall in the Louvre. When Napoleon decided to use that hall for his wedding to Marie-Louise of Austria in 1810, it interfered with his plans and he ordered it to be destroyed: “Since it cannot be moved—burn it.” The curators at the time ignored his command.
After Napoleon’s abdication, owners of stolen art attempted to get their property back. Pope Pius VII appointed the neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova to negotiate the French repatriation of art plundered from the Papal States. Although some items were returned, the French were reluctant to give up their trophies. They claimed that The Wedding Feast at Cana was too large and fragile to be moved. Yet, it was subsequently stored in a box in Brittany during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and was rolled up for storage during the Second World War, continually moving to hiding places throughout the south of France to avoid Nazi plunder.
Whether or not you agree with a scholar who called Napoleon’s pillage “a crime against humanity,” his brazen seizure of art from other lands certainly undermined the Louvre’s lofty civic ideals. Today The Wedding Feast at Cana is the most expansive picture in the paintings collection of the Louvre and shares the same gallery as the Mona Lisa (which Da Vinci had sold to the king of France). In 2007 on the 210th anniversary of its looting, a computer-generated, digital facsimile of The Wedding Feast at Cana was hung in the refectory of the Monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice. It is a full-sized (more than 704 square feet) digital facsimile composed of 1,591 graphic files.