The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece

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Overview

An Italian village on a hilltop near the Adriatic coast, a decaying palazzo facing the sea, and in the basement, cobwebbed and dusty, lit by a single bulb, an archive unknown to scholars. Here, a young graduate student from Rome, Francesca Cappelletti, makes a discovery that inspires a search for a work of art of incalculable value, a painting lost for almost two centuries.

The artist was Caravaggio, a master of the Italian Baroque. He was a genius, a revolutionary painter, and ...

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Overview

An Italian village on a hilltop near the Adriatic coast, a decaying palazzo facing the sea, and in the basement, cobwebbed and dusty, lit by a single bulb, an archive unknown to scholars. Here, a young graduate student from Rome, Francesca Cappelletti, makes a discovery that inspires a search for a work of art of incalculable value, a painting lost for almost two centuries.

The artist was Caravaggio, a master of the Italian Baroque. He was a genius, a revolutionary painter, and a man beset by personal demons. Four hundred years ago, he drank and brawled in the taverns and streets of Rome, moving from one rooming house to another, constantly in and out of jail, all the while painting works of transcendent emotional and visual power. He rose from obscurity to fame and wealth, but success didn’t alter his violent temperament. His rage finally led him to commit murder, forcing him to flee Rome a hunted man. He died young, alone, and under strange circumstances.

Caravaggio scholars estimate that between sixty and eighty of his works are in existence today. Many others–no one knows the precise number–have been lost to time. Somewhere, surely, a masterpiece lies forgotten in a storeroom, or in a small parish church, or hanging above a fireplace, mistaken for a mere copy.

Prizewinning author Jonathan Harr embarks on an spellbinding journey to discover the long-lost painting known as The Taking of Christ–its mysterious fate and the circumstances of its disappearance have captivated Caravaggio devotees for years. After Francesca Cappelletti stumbles across a clue in that dusty archive, she tracks the painting across a continent and hundreds of years of history. But it is not until she meets Sergio Benedetti, an art restorer working in Ireland, that she finally manages to assemble all the pieces of the puzzle.

Told with consummate skill by the writer of the bestselling, award-winning A Civil Action, The Lost Painting is a remarkable synthesis of history and detective story. The fascinating details of Caravaggio’s strange, turbulent career and the astonishing beauty of his work come to life in these pages. Harr’s account is not unlike a Caravaggio painting: vivid, deftly wrought, and enthralling.
". . . Jonathan Harr has gone to the trouble of writing what will probably be a bestseller . . . rich and wonderful. . .in truth, the book reads better than a thriller because, unlike a lot of best-selling nonfiction authors who write in a more or less novelistic vein (Harr's previous book, A Civil Action, was made into a John Travolta movie), Harr doesn't plump up hi tale. He almost never foreshadows, doesn't implausibly reconstruct entire conversations and rarely throws in litanies of clearly conjectured or imagined details just for color's sake. . .if you're a sucker for Rome, and for dusk. . .[you'll] enjoy Harr's more clearly reported details about life in the city, as when--one of my favorite moments in the whole book--Francesca and another young colleague try to calm their nerves before a crucial meeting with a forbidding professor by eating gelato. And who wouldn't in Italy? The pleasures of travelogue here are incidental but not inconsiderable." --The New York Times Book Review

"Jonathan Harr has taken the story of the lost painting, and woven from it a deeply moving narrative about history, art and taste--and about the greed, envy, covetousness and professional jealousy of people who fall prey to obsession. It is as perfect a work of narrative nonfiction as you could ever hope to read." --The Economist

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
All graduate students dream of making great discoveries; but few fulfill those lofty fantasies as impressively as did Francesca Cappelletti. After stumbling on a clue in a dusty archive, this budding Roman art historian retraced the path of a long-lost painting by Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio across a continent and centuries of history. National Book Critics Circle Award winner Jonathan Harr tracks the youthful tracker and her magnificent quarry in a real-life story as vivid and suspenseful as any mystery.
Bruce Handy
In truth, the book reads better than a thriller because, unlike a lot of best-selling non-fiction authors who write in a more or less novelistic vein (Harr's previous book, A Civil Action, was made into a John Travolta movie), Harr doesn't plump up his tale. He almost never foreshadows, doesn't implausibly reconstruct entire conversations and rarely throws in litanies of clearly conjectured or imagined details just for color's sake.
— The New York Times Sunday Book Review
Jabari Asim
The result is a revealing portrait of a world seldom seen by ordinary folks, in which Mahon, Cappelletti, Benedetti and their peers obsessively while away the hours, "always in the company of other scholars, always talking about art." At its best, Harr's magnetic storytelling recalls Cappelletti's first encounter with the work of Caravaggio. To her, his paintings seemed "to pulse with heat and life, capturing a moment in time like a scene glimpsed through a window."
— The Washington Post
Michiko Kakutani
Mr. Harr, the author of the 1995 nonfiction best seller A Civil Action, recounts the search for the painting as a detective story and scholarly treasure hunt, and by interviewing the principal players at length he has created a narrative that possesses all the suspense and emotional and social detail of a keenly observed novel … In recounting these dovetailing stories, Mr. Harr does a dexterous job of building narrative tension, conveying both the intellectual thrills experienced by Ms. Cappelletti and Mr. Benedetti as they make their discoveries and the scrupulous research that goes into verifying their finds.
— The New York Times
The New Yorker
Ten years after his best-selling environmental exposé, “A Civil Action,” Harr brings his narrative talents to the story of how a Caravaggio painting, “The Taking of Christ,” was identified after centuries of obscurity. He follows a precocious graduate student into the archives of a crumbling palazzo, an Italian restorer moored in Ireland, and a patrician British scholar, each of whom contributes a piece of the puzzle. Harr’s attempt to spin their search into a gripping thriller yields mixed results. Despite the book’s tone of hushed excitement, its long inventory of detail sometimes acquires an archival feel, and its ostensible centerpieces—the drinking, brawling Caravaggio and his elusive painting—make only fleeting appearances. Harr excels, however, at anatomizing the minds of his sleuths, and gets good mileage out of the various eccentrics encountered along the way.
Publishers Weekly
Given the relative obscurity of 16th-century the Italian baroque master and all-around creative bad boy Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who after a flare of fame remained relatively unknown from his death until the 1950s, the 1992 discovery of the artist's missing painting The Taking of Christ understandably stirred up a frenzy in academic circles. Harr's skillful and long-awaited follow-up to 1997's A Civil Action provides a finely detailed account of the fuss. While contoured brush strokes and pentimenti repaints have little to do with the toxic waters and legalese Harr dissected in his debut, the author writes comfortably about complex artistic processes and enlivens the potentially tedious details of artistic restoration with his lively and articulate prose. Broken into short, succinct chapters, the narrative unfolds at a brisk pace, skipping quickly from the perspective of 91-year-old Caravaggio scholar Sir Denis Mahon to that of young, enterprising Francesca Cappelletti, a graduate student at the University of Rome researching the disappearance of The Taking of Christ. The mystery ends with Sergio Benedetti, a restorer at the National Gallery of Ireland, who ultimately discovers the lost, grime-covered masterpiece in a house owned by Jesuit priests. But while adept at coordinating dates and analyzing hairline fractures in aged paint, Harr often seems overly concerned with the step-by-step process of tracking down The Taking of the Christ, as if the specific artist who created it were irrelevant. Granted, Harr is not an art historian, but his lack of artistic analysis of Caravaggio's paintings may frustrate readers who wish to know more about the naturalistic Italian's works. (Nov. 1) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Harr's A Civil Action was a best-selling environmental law thriller that was made into a hit motion picture starring John Travolta. His new book recounts the true story of a young Italian graduate student, Francesca Cappelletti, and a National Gallery of Ireland art restorer, Sergio Benedetti, who, 15 years earlier, discovered a Caravaggio painting known as The Taking of Christ that had been missing for 200 years. This book, like his previous title, reads like a fiction thriller and begs to be set on the screen. It is a story of individual persistence, dedication, and, perhaps, obsession; of rank and politics in the art world; and of a troubled 16th-century master who died at age 39. Many of Caravaggio's 60 known paintings remain lost (or, like The Taking of Christ, misattributed). While Benedetti's own exhibition catalog, Caravaggio: The Master Revealed (1993), which is still available through the National Gallery of Ireland, gives the background and basic facts of the painting and its discovery and restoration, Harr infuses this information with life and suspense, and his sure-to-be-popular account will lead general readers to a new appreciation of a long-lost masterpiece as well as of the potential excitement of art history scholarship and art restoration. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/15/05.]-Marcia Welsh, Dartmouth Coll. Libs., Hanover, NH Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375759864
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/7/2006
  • Edition description: Reprinted Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 173,465
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Harr is the author of the national bestseller A Civil Action, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. He is a former staff writer at the New England Monthly and has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. He lives and works in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he has taught nonfiction writing at Smith College.

To schedule a speaking engagement, please contact American Program Bureau at www.apbspeakers.com  

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Part 1

THE ENGLISHMAN

The Englishman moves in a slow but deliberate shuffle, knees slightly bent and feet splayed, as he crosses the piazza, heading in the direction of a restaurant named Da Fortunato. The year is 2001. The Englishman is ninety-one years old. He carries a cane, the old-fashioned kind, wooden with a hooked handle, although he does not always use it. The dome of his head, smooth as an eggshell, gleams pale in the bright midday Roman sun. He is dressed in his customary manner-a dark blue double-breasted suit, hand tailored on Savile Row more than thirty years ago, and a freshly starched white shirt with gold cuff links and a gold collar pin. His hearing is still sharp, his eyes clear and unclouded. He wears glasses, but then he has worn glasses ever since he was a child. The current pair are tortoiseshell and sit cockeyed on his face, the left earpiece broken at the joint. He has fashioned a temporary repair with tape. The lenses are smudged with his fingerprints.

Da Fortunato is located on a small street, in the shadow of the Pantheon. There are tables outside, shaded by a canopy of umbrellas, but the Englishman prefers to eat inside. The owner hurries to greet him and addresses him as Sir Denis, using his English honorific. The waiters all call him Signore Mahon. He speaks to them in Italian with easy fluency, although with a distinct Etonian accent.

Sir Denis takes a single glass of red wine with lunch. A waiter recommends that he try the grilled porcini mushrooms with Tuscan olive oil and sea salt, and he agrees, smiling and clapping his hands together. "It's the season!" he says in a high, bright voice to the others at his table, his guests. "They are ever so good now!"

When in Rome he always eats at Da Fortunato, if not constrained by invitations to dine elsewhere. He is a man of regular habits. On his many visits to the city, he has always stayed at the Albergo del Senato, in the same corner room on the third floor, with a window that looks out over the great smoke-grayed marble portico of the Pantheon. Back home in London, he lives in the house in which he was born, a large redbrick Victorian townhouse in the quiet, orderly confines of Cadogan Square, in Belgravia. He was an only child. He has never married, and he has no direct heirs. His lovers-on this subject he is forever discreet-have long since died.

Around the table, the topic of conversation is an artist who lived four hundred years ago, named Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Sir Denis has studied, nose to the canvas, magnifying glass in hand, every known work by the artist. Since the death of his rival and nemesis, the great Italian art scholar Roberto Longhi, Sir Denis has been regarded as the world's foremost authority on Caravaggio. Nowadays, younger scholars who claim the painter as their domain will challenge him on this point or that, as he himself had challenged Longhi many years ago. Even so, he is still paid handsome sums by collectors to render his opinion on the authenticity of disputed works. His verdict can mean a gain or loss of a small fortune for his clients.

To his great regret, Sir Denis tells his luncheon companions, he's never had the chance to own a painting by Caravaggio. For one thing, fewer than eighty authentic Caravaggios-some would argue no more than sixty-are known to exist. Several were destroyed during World War II, and others have simply vanished over the centuries. A genuine Caravaggio rarely comes on the market.

Sir Denis began buying the works of Baroque artists in the 1930s, when the ornate frames commanded higher prices at auction than the paintings themselves. Over the years he has amassed a virtual museum of seicento art in his house at Cadogan Square, seventy-nine masterpieces, works by Guercino, Guido Reni, the Carracci brothers, and Domenichino. He bought his last painting in 1964. By then, prices had begun to rise dramatically. After two centuries of disdain and neglect, the great tide of style had shifted, and before Sir Denis's eyes, the Italian Baroque had come back into fashion.

And no artist of that era has become more fashionable than Caravaggio. Any painting by him, even a small one, would be worth today many times the price of Sir Denis's finest Guercino. "A Caravaggio? Perhaps now as much as forty, fifty million English pounds," he says with a small shrug. "No one can say for certain."

He orders a bowl of wild strawberries for dessert. One of his guests asks about the day, many years ago, when he went in search of a missing Caravaggio. Sir Denis smiles. The episode began, he recalls, with a disagreement with Roberto Longhi, who in 1951 had mounted the first exhibition in Milan of all known works by Caravaggio. Sir Denis, then forty-one years old and already known for his eye, spent several days at the exhibition studying the paintings. Among them was a picture of St. John the Baptist as a young boy, from the Roman collection of the Doria Pamphili family. No one had ever questioned its authenticity. But the more Sir Denis looked at the painting, the more doubtful he became. Later, in the files of the Archivio di Stato in Rome, he came across the trail of another version, one he thought more likely to be the original.

He went looking for it one day in the winter of 1952. Most likely it was morning, although he does not recall this with certainty. He walked from his hotel at a brisk pace-he used to walk briskly, he says-through the narrow, cobbled streets still in morning shadow, past ancient buildings with their umber-colored walls, stained and mottled by centuries of smoke and city grime, the shuttered windows flung open to catch the early sun. He would have worn a woolen overcoat against the damp Roman chill, and a hat, a felt fedora, he believes. He dressed back then as he dresses now-a starched white shirt with a high, old-fashioned collar, a tie, a double-breasted suit-although in those days he carried an umbrella instead of the cane.

His path took him through a maze of streets, many of which, in the years just after the war, still lacked street signs. He had no trouble finding his way. Even then he knew the streets of central Rome as well as he knew London's.

At the Capitoline Hill, he climbed the long stairway up to the piazza designed by Michelangelo. A friend named Carlo Pietrangeli, the director of the Capitoline Gallery, was waiting for him. They greeted each other in the English way, with handshakes. Sir Denis does not like being embraced, and throughout his many sojourns in Italy he has largely managed to avoid the customary greeting of a clasp and a kiss on both cheeks.

Pietrangeli told Sir Denis that he had finally managed to locate the object of his search in, of all places, the office of the mayor of Rome. Before that, the painting had hung for many years in the office of the inspector general of belle arti, in a medieval building on the Via del Portico d'Ottavia, in the Ghetto district of the city. The inspector general had regarded the painting merely as a decorative piece with a nice frame, of no particular value. The original, after all, was at the Doria Pamphili. After the war-Pietrangeli did not know the precise details-someone had moved it to the Palazzo Senatorio, and finally to the mayor's office.

Pietrangeli and Sir Denis crossed the piazza to the Palazzo Senatorio. The mayor's office lay at the end of a series of dark hallways and antechambers, a spacious room with a high ceiling and a small balcony that looked out over the ancient ruins of the Imperial Forum. There was no one in the office. Sir Denis spotted the painting hanging high on a wall.

He remembers standing beneath it, his head canted back, gazing intently up and comparing it in his mind with the one he had seen at Longhi's exhibition, the Doria Pamphili version. From his vantage point, several feet below the painting, it appeared almost identical in size and composition. It depicted a naked boy, perhaps twelve years old, partly reclined, his body in profile, but his face turned to the viewer, a coy smile crossing his mouth. Most art historians thought Caravaggio had stolen the pose from Michelangelo, from a nude in the Sistine Chapel, and had made a ribald, irreverent parody of it.

From where he stood, Sir Denis could not make out the finer details. The surface of the canvas was dark, the image of the boy obscured by layers of dust and grime and yellowed varnish. But he could tell that the quality was superb. Then again, so was the quality of the Doria Pamphili painting.

He turned to Pietrangeli and exclaimed, "For goodness sake, Carlo, we must get a closer look! We must get a ladder."

Waiting for the ladder to arrive, he paced impatiently in front of the painting, never taking his eyes off it. He thought he could discern some subtle differences between it and the Doria version. Here the boy's gaze caught the viewer directly, mockingly, whereas the eyes of the Doria boy seemed slightly averted, the smile distinctly less open. When a workman finally arrived with a ladder, Sir Denis clambered up and studied the canvas with his magnifying glass. The paint surface had the characteristic craquelure, the web of fine capillary-like cracks produced by the drying of the oil that contained the paint pigments. He saw some abrasion in the paint surface, particularly along the borders, where the canvas and the wooden stretcher behind it came into contact. In some areas, the ground, or preparatory layer, had become visible. He noted that the ground was dark reddish brown in color and roughly textured, as if sand had been mixed into it. This was precisely the type of ground that Caravaggio had often used.

He studied the face of the boy again, the eyes and mouth, areas difficult even for a great painter. This face, he concluded, was much livelier than the Doria version. Indeed, the entire work felt fresher and lighter in both color and execution. He detected the spark of invention and creativity in this painting, something a copyist could never achieve. By the time he climbed down the ladder he felt convinced that Caravaggio's hand had created this painting. As for the Doria version, it was possible, as some maintained, that Caravaggio himself had copied his own work, perhaps at the insistence of a wealthy patron. But Sir Denis was skeptical. He doubted that Caravaggio had ever known about the Doria painting.

At Da Fortunato, Sir Denis pauses after telling this story, and then he smiles. Longhi died years ago, and he'd never accepted the Capitoline version as the original. Longhi was not one to admit a mistake, says Sir Denis. That was the beginning-Sir Denis chuckles-of many disagreements and a long, contentious, and very satisfying feud.

The Englishman has had a hand in the search for several other lost paintings by Caravaggio. He mentions one in particular-it was called The Taking of Christ-that had been the object of both his and Longhi's desire. It had vanished without a trace more than two centuries ago. Like the St. John, many copies had turned up, all suggesting a masterpiece, but none worthy of attribution to Caravaggio. Longhi, near the end of his life, had come up with an important clue in the mystery of the painting's disappearance.

It had been a clever deduction on Longhi's part, Sir Denis tells his guests. But, poor fellow, he hadn't lived to solve the mystery.

The past held many secrets, and gave them up grudgingly. Sir Denis believed that a painting was like a window back into 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 that man's mind. In the case of Caravaggio, it was the mind of a 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.

Part 2

THE ROMAN GIRL

A late afternoon in February, the sun slanting low across the rooftops of Rome. The year was 1989. From the door of the Bibliotheca Hertziana on Via Gregoriana came Francesca Cappelletti, carrying a canvas bag full of books, files, and notebooks in one hand, and a large purse in the other. She was a graduate student at the University of Rome, twenty-four years old, five feet six inches tall, eyes dark brown, cheekbones high and prominent. Her hair, thick and dark, fell to her shoulders. It had a strange hue, the result of a recent visit to a beauty salon near the Piazza Navona, where a hairdresser convinced her that red highlights would make it look warmer. In fact, the highlights made it look metallic, like brass. She wore no makeup, no earrings, and only a single pearl ring on her left hand. Her chin had a slight cleft, most noticeable in repose, although at the moment she was decidedly not in repose.

She was late for an appointment. She had a long, rueful history of being late. As a consequence she'd perfected the art of theatrical apology. The traffic of Rome was her most common excuse, but she'd also invented stuck elevators, missing keys, broken heels, emotional crises, and illnesses in her family. Her apologies had a breathless, stricken sincerity, wide-eyed and imploring, which had rendered them acceptable time and again to friends and lovers.

This appointment was with a man named Giampaolo Correale. He had hired Francesca and several other art history students, friends of hers, to do research on some paintings at the Capitoline Gallery. Every few weeks, he would convene a meeting at his apartment to discuss their progress. Francesca wasn't always late for these meetings. And on those occasions when she had been, Correale had usually forgiven her with a wave of his hand. She had proven herself to be one of his more productive workers. All the same, he had a temperament that alarmed Francesca, capable of expansive good humor one moment and sudden fits of anger the next.

She rode her motorino, an old rust-stained blue Piaggio model, past the church of Trinità dei Monte and the Villa Medici, down the winding road to the Piazza del Popolo. She was a cautious but inexpert driver, despite eight years of experience. Her destination, Correale's apartment, was on Via Fracassini, a residential area of nineteenth-century buildings, small shops, and restaurants, a mile or so north of the city center. She calculated she would be about fifteen minutes late and began considering possible excuses. The truth-that she simply lost track of time while reading an essay on iconography-seemed somehow insufficient.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Foreword

1. Caravaggio is widely regarded by art historians as a revolutionary
painter. Discuss how his work differed from his contemporaries,
and how his work was received by the Church.

2. Caravaggio’s reputation went into eclipse for almost three
hundred years, and yet today, along with Michelangelo, Raphael,
and Leonardo, he has become one of the best known of the Italian
Old Masters. What is it about his work that speaks to modern
tastes?

3. Discuss how and why tastes in art can change so dramatically
from one era to the next.

4. One of the recurring problems among Caravaggio scholars is
identifying Caravaggio’s original works from among many
copies. Do you believe that a high-quality copy can create the
same aesthetic and emotional experience as the original for a
viewer? If so, what is it about the original that makes it so important?

5. At the suggestion of their professor, Francesca and Laura published
what they had discovered in the Recanati archive without
informing their boss, Giampaolo Correale. How does this affect
your view of the two young women? Was Correale justified in
his anger?

6. This is a work of nonfiction in which the author depicts the
lives and actions of real people without changing their names or
concealing their identities. Discuss how you feel about their
treatment. Did you feel the author was objective and fair in his
depictions?

7. The world of art scholars, as described in this book, was riven
with jealousies and feuds. Discuss why this was so, and whether
you think other disciplines are afflicted with the same sort of atmosphere.

8. Theopinion of Sir Denis Mahon was highly esteemed in the
art world. Why do you think this was so? Is it reasonable to place
such weight on the judgments of one man?

9. Francesca refers several times to the “Caravaggio disease,” and
fears at one point that she might get infected by it. What does
she mean by it?

10. Benedetti left Rome and went to work in Ireland. What was
it about Italy that made it so difficult for him to work there?

11. Even though Benedetti managed to repair the damage that
he’d caused during the restoration of the painting, he denied
that anything had gone amiss. Do you think he was justified in
doing so?

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Interviews & Essays

An Interview with Jonathan Harr

Barnes & Noble.com: Your last book, A Civil Action, was a courtroom drama that dealt with environmental issues. How did you go from that subject to writing about 17th-century Italian art?

Jonathan Harr: I was tempted to do another book about lawyers, maybe a criminal case, especially since I’d learned so much about the law, at great cost, during the seven years it took me to write A Civil Action. But at the same time I felt reluctant to repeat myself. I happened upon the story of the lost painting by Caravaggio quite by accident, by reading a short article in The New York Times, and I was immediately curious. The more I looked into it, the more interesting it became. Of course, it also had the additional attraction of going to Italy for research. My knowledge of art history was not profound, but part of the fun of my job is learning new things. That also included learning Italian, since most of the characters in the first part of the book didn’t speak English.

B&N.com: In spite of the obvious differences, these books are more alike than I would have thought -- particularly in the pacing and the investigative angle. Do you agree? Did you find other similarities in the two stories?

JH: Ahh, maybe I am repeating myself after all! But I agree that, in one respect, The Lost Painting is like A Civil Action. I attribute that to the criteria I look for in selecting a story to write. I like some measure of mystery or suspense, which are great narrative engines. And I try to bring the characters to life on the page, to tell a story with the sort of contours and textures that are usually found in fiction. Since I’m writing nonfiction and I strive for accuracy, it’s important that the people I’m writing about are open and willing to share aspects of their lives with me. If they’re not, I have to set about looking for another book to write.

B&N.com: The Lost Painting unfolds from several points of view -- Francesca's, Denis Mahon's, Benedetti's.... What was your point of entry to this fascinating story?

JH: My point of entry was Caravaggio and the lost painting. I’d been fascinated with him, with his creative genius and his wild, utterly out-of-control life, even before I’d contemplated this book. But if I hadn’t liked his work so much, I doubt I would have done the book. I began my research with the restorer Sergio Benedetti and how he’d happened, by chance, to stumble across a painting that appeared to be the lost Taking of Christ. And then I quickly realized there was another part of the story, one in Rome involving Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa, who were actively searching for the painting. And Denis Mahon was omnipresent, and wove his way in and out of the lives of both Benedetti and Francesca. The story exists on several different levels, which I hope gives the book a texture that’s more interesting than a straight-line narrative.

B&N.com: With so few authentic works in existence, why do you think Caravaggio was underrated for so long? Was it simply because Baroque was out of style for some time, or did it have more to do with the artist's "bad boy" reputation?

JH: Tastes and fashions change over time, and artists come in and out of the limelight. Caravaggio was famous in his day, but he was a loner, without students, without a “bottega” that churned out paintings, a practice that most artists who became famous engaged in. Moreover, after his death, he was denigrated by other Baroque artists as a painter who lacked any idea of “decorum” and what was then called “bellezza” -- idealized beauty. He was accused of being too realistic, of being able to paint only what he saw before his eyes, with having “any ideas in his head,” as one of his contemporary critics put it. The result was that he was ignored for centuries. Only in the 20th century, thanks to the Italian scholar Roberto Longhi, did he reemerge from this long eclipse. And today his works resonate powerfully with modern tastes and sensibilities. He has been called by some art historians “the first modern painter.” Now that he’s been rediscovered, I doubt there’s any likelihood he’ll be forgotten again.

B&N.com: Who are some of your favorite artists?

JH: My tastes range widely. I just saw a big exhibition this summer in Venice of Lucian Freud’s work, which I find earthy, pungent, raw, and, to me at least, very appealing.

For pure, diabolical rawness, I find the frescos of Luca Signorelli in the cathedral at Orvieto fascinating, horrifying and, oddly, funny. They depict wildly inventive scenes of Inferno, of hellfire and damnation, the fate of those who are not true believers. Giorgio Vasari, in the cathedral in Florence, is equally good on that score.

I’m also drawn to the works of early Renaissance -- Giotto and Masaccio, for example, and Piero della Francesca -- when artists were beginning to depart from the traditional medieval Byzantine Madonnas and working with perspective. Their lines are clean and elegant.

The term “artist” in its broader sense should include anyone who creates -- film directors, for example. In that area, my preferences run to Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, and Bernardo Bertolucci, to name just three. My list could occupy a couple of pages, but I’ll spare you that.

B&N.com: Few people are aware of the level of bureaucracy that exists in the art world. Do you think all the red tape really serves to protect priceless works, or is it an impediment to the public's enjoyment of great art?

JH: Red tape and bureaucracies, frustrating as they can be, are direct products of a civilized society governed by laws. And in the art world, money has entered into the mix. Paintings are commanding ever-higher prices at auctions. And when there’s money at stake, everything becomes more complicated. The thing that annoys me the most is not red tape and bureaucracy but exhibitions that aren’t well thought out, exhibitions that are done purely to attract paying visitors to museums and galleries.

B&N.com: Is The Taking of Christ still hanging in the National Gallery of Ireland? Have you seen it in person? I imagine it's quite powerful to view up close.

JH: It is still in the National Gallery of Ireland, although it has also been on loan at various times to other Caravaggio exhibitions. It hangs in a large gallery with many other paintings, but it commands your attention in a way that none of the others do -- it is positively luminous in its restored state, larger than I had imagined, and much more dramatic than any photograph or slide could possibly suggest. I looked at it every day for several weeks when I was in Ireland. I also saw it in Boston, when it was lent to Boston College for an exhibition, and in London, for another exhibition called "The Genius of Rome."

B&N.com: I have to admit, there was a moment toward the end of the book when I had visions of an Italian version of Antiques Roadshow, where all the guests were hauling out amazing masterpieces that had been in their families for centuries. Do you think there are many more "lost" paintings out there, waiting to be discovered?

JH: There are certainly other lost paintings awaiting discovery, paintings by Caravaggio as well as many other artists. Several famous Caravaggios are still missing. The possibility exists, of course, that many of those have been destroyed over the centuries, but one hopes that isn’t true. For example, Caravaggio painted a St. Sebastian for Asdrubale Mattei, the brother of Ciriaco, for whom he painted The Taking of Christ. That painting was last seen in 1680, when it was reported to be in France. Benedetti expressed interest in looking for it after he’d found the Taking.

The National Gallery of Ireland did experience a variation of Antiques Roadshow after the discovery of The Taking of Christ. People were hauling old paintings for months, hoping they had something valuable. Apparently nothing much turned up, but as Benedetti once said to me, “You always look, because you never know what you might find.”

B&N.com: What will you write about next?

JH: Good question. I’d love to know the answer myself. I’ve got a few ideas, but I haven’t had time to explore them yet. After spending several years on one project, it feels liberating consider all the possibilities. But I do expect to settle on something early next year. Meanwhile, I’m trying my hand at writing a few short stories -- fictional, by the way, something different from my usual work.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Caravaggio is widely regarded by art historians as a revolutionary painter. Discuss how his work differed from his contemporaries,
and how his work was received by the Church.

2. Caravaggio’s reputation went into eclipse for almost three hundred years, and yet today, along with Michelangelo, Raphael,
and Leonardo, he has become one of the best known of the Italian
Old Masters. What is it about his work that speaks to modern tastes?

3. Discuss how and why tastes in art can change so dramatically from one era to the next.

4. One of the recurring problems among Caravaggio scholars is identifying Caravaggio’s original works from among many copies. Do you believe that a high-quality copy can create the same aesthetic and emotional experience as the original for a viewer? If so, what is it about the original that makes it so important?

5. At the suggestion of their professor, Francesca and Laura published what they had discovered in the Recanati archive without informing their boss, Giampaolo Correale. How does this affect your view of the two young women? Was Correale justified in his anger?

6. This is a work of nonfiction in which the author depicts the lives and actions of real people without changing their names or concealing their identities. Discuss how you feel about their treatment. Did you feel the author was objective and fair in his depictions?

7. The world of art scholars, as described in this book, was riven with jealousies and feuds. Discuss why this was so, and whether you think other disciplines are afflicted with the same sort of atmosphere.

8. The opinion of Sir Denis Mahon was highly esteemed in the art world. Why do you think this was so? Is it reasonable to place such weight on the judgments of one man?

9. Francesca refers several times to the “Caravaggio disease,” and fears at one point that she might get infected by it. What does she mean by it?

10. Benedetti left Rome and went to work in Ireland. What was it about Italy that made it so difficult for him to work there?

11. Even though Benedetti managed to repair the damage that he’d caused during the restoration of the painting, he denied that anything had gone amiss. Do you think he was justified in doing so?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 21 )
Rating Distribution

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(10)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 21 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 6, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Art History can be thrilling!

    I had to keep reminding myself that this was not a fictional thriller, but a true adventure through the art world and it's many social layers and incredible characters. Jonathan Harr is a great writer and I can't wait for the next little corner of the world he chooses to expose.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2011

    Highly Recommended

    Unable to put it down.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 25, 2009

    Crashingly disappointing

    I don't know what some of these reviewers were reading but this was really disappointing. At points it read like a teen fiction novel with the pointless tidbits about Luciano...
    More facts and less about Francesca and Luciano... I mean please.
    Had you told me it was from the same author of A Civil Action I wouldn't believe you. 2.5 stars rounded up to 3.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2008

    I Did Not Know That!

    Fantastic book full of insight into the world of art. Highly recommend.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2006

    Love this book!!

    I have studied some painting reservation classes for fun during my years as an architecture student. This book brings to life many fascinating details and lovely characters. If you love art history, pick this book up for an easy read:) I had a lot of fun reading it. Not quite a 5 stars book, but it is well deserved of 4.5 stars (if I can give a half of a star more).

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2006

    As a dective story, it falls a bit flat

    The author of this very well-written book wants to present a seamless detective story about the discovery of a lost Caravaggio painting. His material, however, prevents him from doing so. The problem is that there are two separate plot lines which have very little to do with one another. And that, despite his best efforts, prevents him from building up suspense and arriving at a truly satisfying denouement.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2006

    Very Slow

    The plot is about the paintstaking process researchers go through to find a lost painting and the pace of this book is just as painfully slow. I finished it, but had to force myself to just keep reading. It reads like a novel, but it is a true story of researchers looking for a lost painting, the search requires, careful attention to detail, hours posting through the dead scrolls of family archives, if this sounds exciting to you, then go for it....don't be fooled by the back of the jacket or the reviews, you really don't learn anything about the artist, other than the fact his life wasn't that exciting, the lives of his researchers aren't that exciting.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2006

    This took 10 years to write?

    I bought the book based on a book review I read in the Boston Globe. This was a decent read,it goes by fast, but I've read better. As I said in my headline, I wouldn't believe this book took 10 years to write. I would think a decades worth of research would fill up more than 264 pages. The ending is somewhat anti-climatic as well.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2006

    Very Compelling

    I picked up The Lost Painting on the basis of preview reviews and the fact that A Civil Action was so well written. This title, nonfiction as well, does not disappoint. The reader gets a clear view of art history, Caravaggio, and art restoration. I found myself staying up much longer than I should and am glad I found a book that I was completely immersed in.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 20, 2005

    Get ready for a real-time treasure hunt!

    This book is a must for anyone who loves or is knowledgeable about art or an amature art historian. Mr. Harr does an superb job of educating while entertaining. The book is a fast paced ADVENTURE and modern-day TREASURE HUNT! The discriptions of Rome and the many 'usual suspects' made me feel as though I were right beside the author as he investigated this fast paced, fascinating tale. This is truely a book you will want to get multiple copies of to give to others. It's left me eagerly awaiting Mr. Harr's next investigative adventure!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2005

    Story Disappoints

    One of the most well-written novels I've read in a long time. Unfortunately though, I don't see how this story will captivate America with anything but a good title. I picked up this book and thought I would immerse myself into the underworld of art, political dealings (they're there but not dramatic), and most importantly a fast gripping read. Unfortunately this book does not offer that. So in conclusion don't read this book unless you're a dedicated reader with nowhere to go.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 8, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2014

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 21 Customer Reviews

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