Thursday, November 1, 2012


I like a good art story.  Something like Susan Vreeland's work, or this audiobook that I enjoyed so much (or this one, not nearly as good). It might be why I like those trashy Gabriel Allon thrillers. I enjoy the mysterious book/manuscript genre as well -- like The Thirteenth Tale, or even A.S. Byatt's Possession.  After thinking about all these books, it seems clear that what I like is the contemporary mixing with the historical.  Which makes Jonathan Harr's nonfiction work The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece kind of a no-brainer in the will-I-like-this sweepstakes.

Harr's narrative begins in 1990 when two young art history graduate students, Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa, are given a research project to take a look at the provenance of two attributed-to Caravaggio paintings on the same subject, St. John the Baptist, to see if they could determine which was Caravaggio's and which was the copy.  In the course of their research, they stumbled upon a largely unknown archive at the crumbling estate of a powerful 16th century family, the Matteis. Ciriaci Mattei had been a patron of Caravaggio. While exploring this archive at the back of the Italian thigh (so to speak), in a small town called Recanati, Francesca and Laura came upon mention of another Caravaggio painting, lost for 200 years: "The Taking of Christ," depicting the moment when Judas kissed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane to identify him to the soldiers poised to arrest him.  Caravaggio scholars knew of the painting, but no one knew where it had gone.

Francesca and Laura keep digging and track "The Taking of Christ" -- at some point attributed to a Caravaggisti named Gerrit Von Honthorst -- to an auction house in Scotland where it vanished from written record sometime in the late 1700s. (The records were lost in a fire in the 20th century.)  Disappointed, Francesca and Laura agree to write an article for an Italian art journal.

Meanwhile, in Dublin, Ireland, a transplanted Italian conservator, Sergio Benedetti, is visiting -- with a colleague from the National Gallery of Ireland -- a Jesuit residence to look at some of their paintings.  The Jesuits were renovating their community house and thought they'd see if any of their paintings were worth restoring. One painting catches Sergio's eye. According to Harr, he believed instantly that the painting was the lost Caravaggio, but it took a little while for him to convince his superiors. Sergio transports the painting to the conservators' studio at the Gallery and begins work to prove his case.  And while a close examination of the painting can provide some of the clues to its provenance, he's got  to create a paper trail as well.  And -- in the course of his research -- Sergio finds the article that Francesca and Laura wrote.

And the rest, as they say, is history.  There's a lot more in the book that I don't want to explain here, because you should read it for yourself.  Harr does a great job with this story -- building suspense in a way that feels natural even though we know that it all ended well -- and intersperses the narrative with a bare bones, yet vivid, biography of the painter.  Caravaggio was a brawler, and when Harr described the rapidly escalating argument he had over the affections of a prostitute with members of a thuggish clan who ruled one Roman neighborhood, I felt like I'd been plopped right into Act One of Romeo & Juliet.  It's too bad Shakespeare (born 1564) didn't know about Caravaggio (born 1571). He clearly would have made a great tragic hero!

Harr's characters make the story -- young art historians, not the rock stars, plug away and get their moments of glory. It's clear Harr has a soft spot for Francesca, but he's somewhat tougher on Sergio. His supporting players are just as interesting: the elderly British art historian Sir Denis Mahon (pronounced Mahhn) or a smarmy Italian journalist named Fabio Isman.  In Harr's hands the slog of research is not a slog (the decrepit Palazzo Mattei on a dreary winter day is crystal clear), and the trade of restoration is fascinating. Even though I sought out an image of "The Taking ...," Harr's descriptions told me where to look.  (Caravaggio included himself in this painting, as he often did.  He's on the far right, holding the lantern.)

Campbell Scott reads this book (heard here before by me).  His low-key style suits nonfiction, as he steadily but patiently tells us the story of this paper chase.  There is a fair amount of dialogue in the story, and Campbell does a little bit of subtle voicing -- a hint of Italian-accented English for Francesca and Sergio, aristocratic English for Sir Denis, a bit of an Irish lilt for two other employees of the Irish National Gallery, including its director, Raymond Keaveney (which my Italian-influenced brain was spelling Cavini -- which was very funny to me at the time). None of the accents were very pronounced, and I can't say that Scott was confident in all his characters, but I enjoyed listening to him read.  He has an interesting voice -- deep and carefully enunciated -- that's entirely pleasant to listen to.

The audiobook has an added extra that I like: a brief interview with the author. Harr explains how he came upon the story and how he turned it into first an article in the New York Times Magazine, and eventually this book.  I always appreciate this inside glimpse into an author's process.

Another version of "The Taking ..." is located at a museum in Odessa, Ukraine. Since the recovery of the Irish-owned painting, Harr explains that scholars now believe that the Odessa version is a very good copy.  (It's also quite damaged.)  Now I see -- from trolling the web -- that this painting was stolen in 2008 (three years after The Lost Painting was published) and recovered two years later. Which brings to mind that recent art theft in the Netherlands, and the ongoing loss experienced by the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum. Why do people do this? Because there's always a need to have what no one else can, I guess.

[This image of "The Taking of Christ" was retrieved from the National Gallery of Ireland's website.]

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr
Narrated by Campbell Scott
Books on Tape, 2005.  6:22

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