Read an Excerpt
It was almost as if she were waiting, hanging there, in the painted darkness.
The small Baroque church of Santa Giuliana in Trastevere huddled in a corner of the warm Roman night. The streets were blue and motionless, illuminated only by the hushed light of a streetlamp from the square nearby.
Then there was a sound. Inside the church.
It was the faintest scream of metal on metal, barely perceptible in daylight, but now like a shriek of white against black. Then it stopped. The sound had been only momentary, but it echoed.
From out of the belly of the sealed church, a bird rose. A pigeon fluttered frantically along the shadowy chapel walls and swooped through the vaults and down the transept, carving a path blindly through the inky cavernous interior.
Then the alarm went off.
Father Amoroso woke with a start. Sweat clung to his receded hairline.
He looked at his bedside clock. Three fifteen. Night still clung outside his bedroom window. But the ringing in his ear would not stop. Then he noticed that it was not only in his ear.
He threw a robe over his nightshirt and slipped on his sandals. In a moment he was down the stairs, and he ran the few paces across the square to Santa Giuliana in Trastevere, which squatted, like an armadillo, he had once thought, but now vibrated with sound.
Father Amoroso fumbled with his keys and finally pulled open the ancient door, swollen in the humidity. He turned to the anachronism just inside, switching off the alarm. He looked around for a moment. Then he picked up the telephone.
"Scusi, signore. I'm here, yes...I don't know. Probably a malfunction with the alarm system, but I...just a moment..."
Father Amoroso put the police on hold as he surveyed the interior. Nothing moved. The darkness sat politely around the edges of the church and the moonlight on the nave cast shadows through the pews. He took a step forward, then thought better of it. He turned on the lights.
The Baroque hulk slowly sprang to life. Spotlights on its various alcoves and treasures illuminated the empty spaces vicariously. Father Amoroso stepped forward into the center of the nave and scanned. There was the chapel of Santa Giuliana, the Domenichino painting of Santa Giuliana, the confessional, the white marble basin of holy water, the prayer candelabra with the OFFERTE sign, the statue of Sant'Agnese by Maderno, the Byzantine icon and chalices within the vitrine, the Caravaggio painting of the Annunciation above the altar, the reliquary that buried the shinbone of Santa Giuliana beneath a sea of gold and glass.... Nothing seemed out of place.
Father Amoroso returned to the telephone.
"Non vedo niente...must be a problem with the system. Please excuse me. Thank you...good night...yes...yes, thank you."
He cradled the phone and switched off the lights. The momentarily enlivened church now slept once more. He reset the alarm, then pulled heavily shut the door, locked it, and returned to his apartment to sleep.
Father Amoroso bolted upright in bed, eyes wide. He'd had a horrible dream in which he could not cease the ringing in his ears. He attributed it to the zuppa di frutti di mare from dinner at Da Saverio, but then realized once again that the ringing was not in his ears alone. Everyone must have eaten at Da Saverio, he thought for a moment, and then awoke more thoroughly.
It was the alarm, once again ringing violently. He looked at his bedside clock. Three fifty. The sun was still sound asleep. Why not he? He put on his robe and sandals and tripped down once more into the sleepless Roman night.
Father Amoroso, though rarely a profane man, muttered minor curses under his breath, as he fumbled with his keys, rammed them into the heavy wooden door, and pulled it open, leaning back on his heels for proper leverage.
This is supposed to be a church, not an alarm clock, he thought.
Inside, he spun toward the alarm on the wall, accidentally knocking the telephone out of its cradle. "Dio!" he muttered, then thought better of it, and pointed up to the sky with a whispered "scusa, signore. I'm a little tired. Scusa."
He switched off the alarm, then turned to the church interior. The shadows seemed to mock him. He flicked on the lights with relish. The church yawned into illumination. Father Amoroso picked up the telephone.
"Si? Si, mi dispiace. I don't know...no, that shouldn't be necessary...just a moment, please..."
He put down the phone, and moved once more to the center of the nave. The tiny church gaped, huge and vacant, within the early morning darkness.
Nothing seemed amiss. This time Father Amoroso walked round the inside walls of the church. He moved along the worn slate paving, past rows of extinguished candles, carved wooden pews, and still shadowy alcoves hiding the figures of saints in relief or in oil. Everything was sound. He returned to the telephone.
"Niente. Niente di niente. Mi dispiace, ma...right, now it's four ten in the morning...yes, probably a malfunction...yes...later in the morning, yes. Nothing to be done until then. Thank you, good night...I mean, good morning. Night ended some time ago....Ciao."
Father Amoroso looked with disdain at the alarm that had twice sounded for no reason, merely to mock him. Perhaps he should not have looked so longingly at Signora Materassi at Mass last Sunday. God has his ways. He would call to have the alarm system checked for faults later on. Perhaps he could still get a little sleep.
Father Amoroso switched off the lights. He ignored the smug alarm as he brushed out the door, locked it, and returned home to capture what precious moments of sleep he still could.
An alarm went off.
Father Amoroso jackknifed out of bed. But then he calmed. It was his bedside alarm. The time was seven, on a Monday morning. That's better, he thought.
The sun was present on the horizon and the day promised its usual Roman iridescence through the humidity of summer. He yawned thoughtlessly and stretched his fatigued arms cruciform. Throwing off his nightshirt, Father Amoroso waddled into the bathroom and emerged a new man, clean and fresh for a new day. He donned his clerical garments and made his way down to Santa Giuliana.
He was still ten minutes early. He was not required to open the door until the stroke of eight. The day was not yet too hot, and Father Amoroso decided to steal away for a moment. He slipped into the bar nearby and ordered a caffè. He admired the sunshine on the ancient paving as he sipped his espresso, standing at the bar. Locals passed in the street outside. The occasional tourist bumbled by, map in hand and camera at the ready.
He checked his watch. Seven fifty-seven. He drank up and crossed the square to his church.
With a pleasurable sense of leisure, Father Amoroso fumbled slowly at his keys and, finding the right one, twisted and tugged at the great wooden door. When he had it yawned sufficiently, he looped the metal catch to prop it open and allowed the still air trapped within to cool down in the morning breeze that flowed without.
He entered the church and threw a look of disdain upon the alarm system as he passed. God, I'll have to have it fixed today, he thought, then realized his blasphemy and glanced up to Heaven for pardon. He shuffled across the floor to the church office, pushed aside the curtain that hid the door, and unlocked it. He turned and crossed to the center of the nave, stopping briefly to genuflect in front of the altar as he passed.
He was about to continue, when he saw it. He couldn't believe his eyes. Perhaps he was still asleep, he hoped. Then it sank in, and he stumbled backward, as he cried out "Dio mio!"
The Caravaggio altarpiece was gone.
Copyright © 2007 by Noah Charney
"But it's a fake."
Geneviève Delacloche pinched the phone between shoulder and ear, and fumbled with the cord, which she had somehow managed to tangle round her wrists.
Her small office overlooked the Seine, with the yellow-gray stone medieval majesty of riverside Paris arched up on either side of the coral water. Her desk was overcome with papers that had, at one time, been put in precise order. Delacloche was of the hybrid sort of obsessive- compulsive who need a correct place for everything, but never actually keep anything in that place.
The prints on the wall were all the work of the same artist: Kasimir Malevich. They were of the abstract variety that drove mad those uneducated in art, with explicative titles such as Black Square, Suprematism with Blue Triangle and Black Rectangle, and Red Square: Realism in Paint of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions, the latter consisting, in its entirety, of a slightly obtuse red square on a white background. Wood-framed diplomas told of degrees in painting conservation and arts administration. On her desk lay a stack of monogrammed, cream-colored paper, with the elegant Copperplate-font words malevich society printed along the top.
Open on her lap, Delacloche held a catalogue for an upcoming sale of "Important Russian and Eastern European Paintings and Drawings," at Christie's in London. The catalogue was open to page 46, lot 39:
Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935)
Suprematist Composition White on White
oil on canvas
54.6 x 36.6 in. (140 x 94 cm.)
Abraham Steingarten, 1919-39
Josef Kleinert, 1939-44
Galerie Gmurzynska, Zug, 1944-52
Otto Metzinger, 1952-69
Luc Sallenave, 1969
Anon. sale, Sotheby's London, 1 October 1969, lot 55, when acquired by present owner
Liebling Galerie, Berlin, 1929, Suprematist Works and Their
Influence on Russian Spirituality, no. 82
Galerie Gmurzynska, Zug, 1946, no. 22
Art Journal, 1920, p.181
This painting is believed to be the first of Malevich's renowned and controversial series of Suprematist White on White compositions. It is considered the most important of the series...
"Jeffrey, I'm telling you it's a fake. Don't you tell me that I'm being severely French! I am severely French, but that doesn't make the issue go away. You're about to auction off a fake Malevich. I have the catalogue right here, yes. How am I so sure? I'll tell you how. Because the painting that you're planning to auction off is here. It's owned by the Malevich Society. I'm telling you, it's in the vault in the basement right now. Yes, that's right, three floors beneath my ass..."
Malevich strikes a balance between whiteness and nothingness, and he magnificently transforms this tense contrast in a contemplative meditation on inner tension. These works are wholly about feeling. Malevich has divorced himself from depictions of the everyday, of life and objects, and has honed his abilities into the projection of emotion. There is no right or wrong answer to the question "What is this painting about?" The question is "What does this make you feel?"
"...Look, the painting has been in the vault for months now. I saw it there last week. We only very rarely lend it out for exhibition, so it's been locked away for ages. I don't know why you didn't contact us immediately ...because of the provenance, well...I know you think that you are looking at it in your office right this minute, but I'm telling you, it has to be a fake..."
It is both revolution and ideology, abstract forms that may be appropriated by any viewer to his or her own end. Malevich frees his viewers from the shackles of iconography, and liberates them into a world of concentrated feeling. He did so long before such abstract works were popularized.
"...of course he did multiple versions of White on White, but I've only ever heard of two that are this large. All the extant versions of the painting are smaller, except for ours and one in a private collection in the U.K. But I recognize the image in the catalogue as ours. The provenance is all different, but if you're telling me that your own photographers took this catalogue photo from the original that's in your office, then it's a fake.
"Jeffrey, the Malevich Society's job is to protect the name of the artist. Just like if some fellow off the street wrote a symphony and called it a lost Beethoven, people would object, and the artist's oeuvre would be damaged. The same goes for this painting that must be forged, or at least misattributed.
"I recognize the painting, Jeffrey! How do I recognize it? I recognize it the way you'd know your wife if you passed her on the street. You're not married? Well, Jeffrey, I really don't care, but you know what I mean. When you've seen enough of these, especially of this particular painting, you get to know it intrinsically. It's my job to locate and protect every extant piece of art by Malevich. That's why I want you to withdraw this lot from the auction. I have my hands full hunting down forgeries, and it doesn't help when a high-profile institution such as yours is claiming that fakes are real..."
It is objective art, in that it does not rely on specialized knowledge for interpretation, as might a painting of a scene from classical mythology, which requires a recognition of the story in order to understand the action and glean the moral. It is a liberation from the excess clutter that impedes the path to pure emotion. It is an almost Buddhist focus, pushing aside the trappings of traditional paintings of things. It provokes.
For Malevich, the reaction was one of transcendental meditation and peace. But the painting is equally successful if it provokes anger in the viewer, who may say, outraged, "How is this art? I could paint that!" In answer to this exclamation, if one actually sat down and tried to paint exactly this, one would find that it is impossible. The textures and tones, despite the monochromatic palette, are deep and subtle. Painting such a work is easier said than done. But in one's outrage, the painting has succeeded. It provokes emotion. Suprematist art reaches for the stars and thereby creates a new emotional constellation that hangs in the sky for all to see and interpret as they will.
"Well, thank you, Jeffrey. Your English is very good, too. Yes, I know that you're English. It's a joke. Yes. Well, I had four years in...look, we're getting sidetracked here. I know the provenance looks good, I'm looking at it now. Well, I've not heard of all...no. But have you checked them all out? Well, what are you waiting for? I know you're busy, but if you sell a fake for six million you're going to be in a lot worse trouble than if you.... Can't you just delay a bit, and I'll do the research for you? Well, if you don't have the authority, can I speak with Lord...it's not going to do any good. No, it's not my time of the month, I...but, I...yeah, well I hope you get royally fucked in the..."
"And this is the man we have to thank for the recovery of the stolen and ransomed portrait of our dearly beloved foundress, Lady Margaret Beaufort," said the dean of St John's College, Cambridge.
He gestured to the elegant, trimmed, and gray-templed Gabriel Coffin, a smile in his eyes. The room in which he stood was a wide wood-paneled corridor, brightened only by candlelight bounced off polished silver sconces. The Fellows of the college assembled before him, each clasping tight a glass of preprandial sherry. They look like the cast of a Daumier cartoon, thought Coffin. He stroked his close-cropped bearded chin, black speckled white.
"A renowned scholar and consultant to police on art theft, and a graduate of our own institution, he kindly volunteered his investigative services, when Lady Margaret went missing from the Great Hall. Of course, we'd all thought that those cads over at Trinity had had their way with her, but when it proved more serious, Dr. Coffin came to our rescue. Let us give him a hearty thanks, and then adjourn to dinner."
The shudder din of voices and clinking cutlery whirled up from the long wooden tables and spun toward the dark-wood ceiling of the formal dining hall at St John's College.
Coffin stared out from the Fellows' Table, perpendicular to the long rows of students. Above his head, the large sixteenth-century portrait of the college foundress, Lady Margaret Beaufort, knelt in prayer. Was she relieved at her rescue? Back in her place, hung high on the wall. Coffin floated alone, adrift in a sea of conversation and laughter.
Waiters wove round the medieval benches full of students in suit-and-tie and academic robes. William Wordsworth, among other illustrious graduates, stared down inert from pendulous portraits on the wall, and donors proclaimed their gifts from coats-of-arms melted into the stained glass and branded onto the rafters.
Suddenly, Coffin heard a clink. What do I have that clinks? he thought. Then he felt his ribs nudged by a neighboring elbow.
He turned to the Fellow seated to his right, a toothless, red-faced old goat with a beard like a white sneeze. He was clearly on the losing side of the war for sobriety.
"You've been pennied, my boy!"
Coffin could feel the man's breath. "I beg your pardon?"
"You've got to save the Queen from drowning. Bottoms up!" The Fellow gestured to Coffin's wineglass, at the bottom of which lay a one-pence coin.
Coffin rolled his eyes and downed his glass. The Fellow laughed and gave him an old-boy smack on the shoulder. When he had turned away, Coffin dropped the recently saved penny onto the Fellow's plate of bread-and-butter pudding. The Fellow spun around and his smile faded.
"Now you have to eat your dessert hands-free," said Coffin, coolly. "You know the rules. If I penny your plate without your noticing..."
The sounds of the hall nearly masked the ring of his mobile phone. Coffin lifted it to his ear.
"Pronto? Buona sera. I didn't expect to hear from you. What can I...Really? No, I can...I'll be on the earliest flight back to Rome tomorrow morning..."
Something had been stolen.
Copyright © 2007 by Noah Charney