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Book Review - The Lost Painting: The Search For Caravaggio's Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr

Lost and Found

The Lost Painting
by
Jonathan Harr

Published by Random House

Review by W. R. Greer


I started reading The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr without ever having taken an art appreciation or art history class in my life. I'd heard of Caravaggio, but all I knew about him was that he was an Italian painter from a couple hundred years ago. I couldn't name one of his paintings. For those of you who share a dearth of knowledge about the artist and his works, or even about art in general, rest assured that this is still an entertaining and enthralling book.

Jonathan Harr's book is written for both the art lover and the art neophyte. He tells about the search for a lost Caravaggio masterpiece through the perspective of three people involved in the search, as well as filling in the details of Caravaggio's life. In 1989, Francesca Cappelletti was a graduate student in art history in Rome working on the background for a Caravaggio painting of a young St. John the Baptist. Two identical copies of the painting were in different galleries in Rome and Francesca was part of group trying to determine which one was the original and which one was a high-quality copy. Francesca and another student, Laura Testa, were assigned to research the backgrounds of both paintings in hopes that a centuries-old paper trail could help establish which was the original. Their research led them to suspect that the St. John painting was originally owned by the wealthy Mattei family in the early 1600s. Francesca and Laura were granted permission to look through old family inventories and archives in the dusty basement of a palazzo on the shores of the Adriatic Sea. There they found a clue as to the origins of another Caravaggio painting, The Taking of Christ, which had disappeared centuries earlier.

Caravaggio arrived in Rome as a destitute young man in 1592. By the start of the new century, he was one of the most important artists in Rome. He was a drinking, womanizing, carousing young man, quick to give insults or seek revenge for those insults thrust at him. His altercations with the law and powerful families eventually led to his exile from Rome and early death in 1610. He was a prodigious painter, and most scholars estimate that he created somewhere between 60 and 80 paintings in his lifetime. Within a hundred years of his death, he was mostly forgotten and considered a minor painter. In the middle of the 20th century, Caravaggio's popularity surged again. Those who have become fascinated by anything to do with the artist suffered from "the Caravaggio disease," an obsession to own his paintings or know everything there is to know about his life and works. Francesca knew that finding important clues to a lost Caravaggio painting was an important event in the art world, and she herself caught a taste of the disease. It had her combing archives in Rome, England, and Scotland in hoping to find the change of ownership of The Taking of Christ over the years in hopes of finding its final resting place. Most scholars were working under the assumption that it was somewhere in the British Isles, probably hanging in some remote place where its identity and value were unknown.

The second person whom Jonathan Harr builds the story around is Sir Denis Mahon, an elderly Englishman considered one of the top art historians and the pre-eminent Caravaggio scholar. Francesca's work comes to his attention and he does what he can do to help her investigation along, providing pivotal information and aid at times. Both Francesca and Sir Denis knew a copy of the The Taking of Christ existed in Odessa, but most scholars assumed it was not the original. Jonathan Harr explained through Sir Denis why the hunt for the original carries such importance:

The past held many secrets, and gave them up grudgingly. Sir Denis believed that a painting was like a window back in time, that with meticulous study he could peer into a work by Caravaggio and observe that moment, four hundred years ago, when the artist was in his studio, studying the model before him, mixing colors on his palette, putting brush to canvas. Sir Denis believed that by studying the work of an artist he could penetrate the depths of the man's mind. In the case of Caravaggio, it was the mind of the genius. A murderer and a madman, perhaps, but certainly a genius. And no copy, however good, could possibly reveal those depths. That would be like glimpsing a man's shadow and thinking you could know the man.
The third person of this trio is Sergio Benedetti, an Italian art restorer working at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. In August 1990, he visited a local Jesuit residence to see which of their paintings need cleaning or restoring. One large painting catches his eye, and beneath layers of dust, grease, and soot he believes they may have a treasure on their hands, an original Caravaggio painting.

There have been a rash of thrillers in recent years that combine exotic locales with scholars combing dusty archives, residences, and churches for clues that will lead them to the next clue that might unlock the mystery they have to solve. You could put The Da Vinci Code, The Rule of Four, and The Historian in this list. The difference between these and The Lost Painting is that nobody's life is in peril and no disaster will occur if the mystery isn't solved. The search for The Taking of Christ is just as riveting, perhaps more so because this is nonfiction. Proving any piece of art is an original is painstaking work, and this is where The Lost Painting really shines. If Jonathan Harr had just stuck to a chronology of events, this would have been dry reading indeed. By bringing to life not just the personalities of Francesca, Sir Denis, and Sergio Benedetti, but the world of art as a whole, coupled with the differences between life and art in Rome, England, and Ireland, The Lost Painting takes on that human element. You see Francesca's love of Rome along with Sergio's distaste of Italian bureaucracy. It's a world where grudges can last a lifetime, where petty jealousies create competition among art historians that can make or break careers and reputations, and where almost absolute proof must be obtained before going public with any claim. As Sergio slowly peels off the layers of grime off the painting and goes through the laborious process of restoring it, Jonathan Harr explains each step of the process, including the potential dangers involved that might destroy the painting instead of restoring it.

One minor complaint about The Lost Painting is its lack of pictures about Caravaggio's art. The rear cover has a small copy of The Taking of Christ, and I was constantly referring to it to as I read the book. Fortunately, the internet provides a solution. For those interested in seeing Caravaggio's paintings, visit Web Gallery of Art's Caravaggio page.

The Lost Painting was educational and entertaining for this art neophyte. I was glad that Jonathan Harr filled in all the details to make this quest for one of Caravaggio's masterpieces so the lay person could understand it as well as the art lover. Don't let an ignorance of art history dissuade any reader from picking up this book and enjoying what is has to offer. The Lost Painting is a thriller in its truest sense.

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