Review

The Lost Painting

by Jonathan Harr



Since his 1997 bestseller turned John Travolta vehicle, A CIVIL
ACTION, people have been awaiting Jonathan Harr's next foray as
anxiously as that of John Berendt's. I am pleased to say that
Harr's latest, THE LOST PAINTING, has arrived and was worth the
wait.

Tackling a completely different subject and, at times, a different
era, Harr investigates a painting by Michelangelo Merisi da
Caravaggio that has been missing and presumed lost for centuries.
Caravaggio (1573-1610) was a painter in the Italian Baroque style.
In the late 1500s the Baroque movement was finally overcoming the
idealistic Mannerism style that had been so prominent among
artists, exhibiting a more naturalist approach, with gesturing
figures and prominent use of chiaroscuro (the arrangement of light
and dark elements in an artwork). The casual observer knows Baroque
art by its very dark backgrounds, its emotional, almost glowing,
figures in the foreground, and --- due to the fact that the
Catholic Church was the largest patron of the arts at the time ---
a typically religious context. Think lots of beheaded saints,
virgins looking tragically off-canvas, angels visiting the
earthbound --- all painted in realistic terms.

Caravaggio, whose given name is Michelangelo Merisi (the da
Caravaggio represents his Italian birth city), came on the Roman
art scene in the 1580s, found some patrons and then an influential
dealer, painted the Contarelli Chapel with scenes from the life of
St. Matthew, and produced scenes ranging from typical Italian
street life (The Fortune Teller) to better known pieces
(Boy Bitten by a Lizard) to extremely well-known paintings
based on the life of Christ --- Madonna di Loreto, Rest
on the Flight to Egypt
, The Crowning of Thomas,
Supper at Emmaus, and on and on. Caravaggio often took
criticism based on his choice of lowly models for heavenly works. I
won't go any further as Harr discusses several examples of this in
the book.

Caravaggio died after 37 years of painting, drinking, gambling,
fighting (often over courtesans) and eluding the authorities. He
killed an opponent after a game of court tennis in 1606 and ran
until 1610 when he was pardoned by the Pope. Somehow he missed the
boat that was to take him back to Rome and died several days later
on July 18, 1610. Again, I'll leave the rest of Caravaggio's
character analysis and the details of his existence to Harr, who
does an admirable job.

Caravaggio left behind some 60-80 works. One in particular, The
Taking of Christ
(1602), has been missing for ages and
Caravaggio scholars worldwide always seem to have been on the hunt
for this one. The painting, in classic baroque style, depicts the
arrest of Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane by soldiers who
were brought there by Judas Iscariot. Having once been in the
possession of a Caravaggio patron, the trail of the painting
disappears in the eighteenth century.

Enter the players who will solve the mystery of The Taking of
Christ
. Francesca Cappelletti, a young Italian grad student,
stumbles across some clues regarding the painting while working on
her own research project. With the assistance of a student friend,
she will gain access to the Mattei family archives --- ledgers upon
ledgers of centuries-old receipts and inventories, wills and
letters that reside in a musty basement presided over by the
Marchesa Mattei. A proper but gritty matriarch, Mattei never really
understands exactly what the girls are looking for; much to their
horror, she is slowly organizing the archives under a personal
system that no one else ever will be able to understand.

Francesca's path intersects and a correspondence starts with the
91-year-old British scholar and Caravaggio expert Denis Mahon. He
prods Cappelletti to continue searching for the answers to the
mystery and liberally offers her the benefits of his expertise in
the field. The final player, Sergio Benedetti, is an art restorer
at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin who lives out the
dream of every restorer when he is called to a Jesuit-owned house
to inspect a painting that the priests would like to see cleaned.
Benedetti recognizes the Caravaggio instantly, but it takes many
months of painful restoration and communication with both
Cappelletti and Mahon, among others, before the finding can be
announced and the beautifully restored painting unveiled, bringing
new recognition to the Museum.

Once again, Harr takes a topic that seems at the outset to be, at
the very least, somewhat mundane if not downright tedious. However,
his skill at telling a story --- especially one that is completely
factual --- shines through from the very first page. His book reads
like a fine detective mystery with art historians standing in for
the P.D. and an infamous painting taking the place of a grisly
murder. THE LOST PAINTING, at only 288 pages, is a quick read, not
only because of the length but because it is a gripping book with
an interesting subject matter that isn't your typical
run-of-the-mill nonfiction offering (read: politics, dysfunctional
families, business exposes, or any combination of the three).

Harr proves his mastery of this genre again. Hopefully, THE LOST
PAINTING will be one of those books that passes quickly from reader
to reader and, like A CIVIL ACTION, will remain a top seller for
years to come.

Reviewed by Jamie Layton on January 7, 2011

The Lost Painting
by Jonathan Harr