on November 3, 2005
Not having read Jonathan Harr's previous book, ("A Civil Action") I'm unable to comment on which is the better book; what I can say, though, was that I was totally captivated by "The Lost Painting."
Many scholars acknowledge that there probably are several missing Caravaggio masterpieces lying about forgotten and neglected. "The Lost Painting" is about the search for and discover of one such painting, "The Taking Of Christ." In 1989, while working on a project, graduate students, Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa, come across mention of the sale of "The Taking of Christ" in the early part of the nineteenth century by the then owner, Guisseppe Mattei to a Scotsman. The information fires up in Francesca a desire to discover what happened to the painting from this point on. She is only partially successful. In the meantime, art restorer, Sergio Benedetti, makes an astonishing discovery when a routine job nets an inexpected find...
Jonathan Harr did, I thought, a wonderful job of vividly conveying the excitement and drive of those involved in the search for (Francesca Cappelletti) and discovery of Caravaggio's lost painting (Sergio Benedetti). And if the author sometimes sounded a little detached and removed from what he was relating in the book, he more than made up for it with his clear and precise descriptions of scenes and characters -- I thought that his portrayal of the slightly gaga Marchesa was priceless; and really enjoyed his brief but telling descriptions of all the characters, both primary and secondary. My sole reservation lay in what I thought was the unnecessary inclusion of Francesca's private romantic life into the book. It struck a slightly jarring note, I thought. Fortunately, this was far and few between. I was also disappointed that neither the author not his editors thought to include picture plates of some of the paintings discussed in the book. It would have been nice to have had easy access to the Doria Pamphili "St. John," the Capitoline "St. John" and esp "The Taking of Christ" without having to unearth my old art history books, still in boxes. Oh well, at least it inspired me to put up more bookshelves and unpack all those boxes of books! All in all, though, "The Lost Painting" was a completely riveting and enthralling read, and one I would especially recommend to art lovers everywhere.
on November 12, 2005
I couldn't put this book down! As usual, the truth reads better than fiction.
Over the years, many people representing many different interests searched for the whereabouts of a missing masterpiece by the great Caravaggio. All met with dead ends. In this fast paced book, the author introduces us to those in the art world who were involved in the search, and he allows us to see how each contributes to the final outcome. We are there as each new clue is discovered.
Caravaggio was evidently a pretty wild character who was no stranger to the police. How such a man was able to create paintings of such light and beauty is incredible. Learning more about the artist is one of the highlights of the book.
I don't want to spoil the story by giving away any details. Reading first-hand how things slowly evolve is part of the fun. I do highly recommend it, though, to anyone interested in Italian art, in art history, or to anyone looking for a good, intelligent mystery. A fascinating story.
on February 6, 2007
I really love history, and especially art history. A book about the finding of the long lost Caravaggio painting "The Taking of Christ" got me really excited. Then I started reading it. Evidently authors like Mr. Harr feel that most people won't pick up a book that is not fiction so he writes in a way that gives new meaning to the term "narrative history". At first he seems to want to write a novel. We go riding through the mountains seeing the scenery, experiencing the ocean breeze, pulling over to the side to let faster vehicles pass us by. Our brakes aren't too good, but now the road gets wider....etc. I am getting very impatient with this book about this time. This is novelistic fill that I am reading.
But then half way through the book a new day dawns. We no longer have to sit through a dinner where an art historian has ordered "an antipasto of mixed seafood marinated in olive oil and lemon juice followed by medallion of veal with lemon and capers and a plate of spinach repassato, cooked with garlic and oil" (actual quote). We now enter a rather fascinating world of art restoration spiced with biographical details of Caravaggio's life. Is the found painting really Caravaggio's? How do we determine if it is? The book now hits its stride and all the early fluff is forgiven. On balance it is a commendable book of art detection and restoration that is devoid of academic stodginess. Lots of fun once you get past the ocean breezes.
on November 24, 2006
Like "six degrees of separation" everything is somehow connected. How my brother -- who once asked me to explain THE TAKING OF CHRIST during a visit to the National Gallery in Dublin -- came to be reading this book is one of the mysteries of being a sibling. (His curiosity always surprises me.) In any case, I swiped it away from him during a Xmas visit before I even realized it was the same painting we had seen in Dublin. What could be more fun than to read about the intense and passionate discovery of a lost Caravaggio painting, made by two young Italian art students just starting out?! It is engagingly written and reads like a detective novel, with many fulsome descriptions of all the players such as the difficult Italian woman who holds the old sales books for the original painting, the elderly art historian who guides the young Francesca on her painstaking discovery, the priests in whose home the painting is discovered, the patroness who bequeathed it to them, and above all the restorer who identifies THE TAKING OF CHRIST and is overwhelmed by its power, both as an art discovery and as a gem of prestige. There's enough information about the painter and man Caravaggio and the world in which he worked and played to entice even the least art history oriented reader.
on February 4, 2006
I find it stange that the Amazon review posted here claims Harr's book reveals "...how this clue--a single entry in an old listing of family possessions--led to a residence in Ireland and the subsequent restoration of this Italian Baroque masterpiece is the subject of this brisk and enthralling detective story."
Well... except that it doesn't. In fact, the "star" of this book, the young, beautiful Italian art historian with flowing hair and a scooter, is shown to have had nothing whatsoever to do with the rediscovery of the titular lost painting. Rather, the painting was rediscovered by an Italian painting conservator in Ireland, completely independently of vixenish Francesca's archival research.
In the end, the painting is rediscovered because Mr. Benedetti, who we don't meet until 3/4 of the way through the book, recognized it immediately. He then proceeded to subject the painting to conservation treatments and scientific examinations which proved beyond a doubt that the Irish Taking of Christ was, indeed, the real thing.
But, hey, forget about the unglamourous and disagreeable Benedetti! The star of the Harr's narrative is the flashy, sexy Ms. Cappelletti, whose activities the author recounts with an obsessive attention to detail, including her tortured unrequited love relationship with her morose eventual husband. Her story dominates the book even though, in the end, her archival efforts, which were certainly impressive, failed to elucidate an unbroken provenance for the painting and utterly failed to locate the work in question, as I mentioned above.
So, again, I thought it was simply bizarre that Harr turned the story of the search for a lost masterpiece into a completely unrelated portrait of a person who had nothing to do with its rediscovery. Peculiar.
Jonathan Harr has done a masterful job of taking us along as two art historians follow different clues that lead to the proof that a rare find (the finding of Caravaggio's "Taking of Christ") is the original. Two art students looking to follow the provenance of one of Caravaggio's other paintings, stumble upon a lead as to what had happened to another of his pieces.
The once wealthy Mattei family, had had four Caravaggio's in their possession up until the early 1800's. Since Caravaggio was not considered a great painter (at that time his works were considered pedestrian and vulgar) the family had sold the works to a Scotsman on a "Great Tour". Francesca Cappelletti and a fellow student are able to review the Mattei family archives and find when the painting was originally bought (1601) and when it was then sold (1801). The buyer had taken it back to Scotland and it was given to an auction house in 1921, but there the trail ended. There was no trace of it's sale or disposition.
At the same time in Dublin, Sergio Benedetti, a italian trained restorer at the National Gallery of Ireland, is asked to clean an old painting that has been hanging in a Jesuit house for "ages". When Benedetti first sees the painting he is astonished that it has the style of Caravaggio in the composition and brush strokes. Could it be a copy that was made around the same time as the original? Once he is able to clean and view it close up he is sure that is the original. He is able to follow it back to the auction house, but cannot discover how it got to the owner who had given it to the Jesuits.
Benedetti contacts a well known Caravaggisti, Sir Denis Mahon who recognizes the picture as not only the original but that this is the picture that Cappelletti had traced to the same auction house. Not only is the painting able to be authenticated, but except for the ten years between 1921 and 1931 (when it was given to the Jesuits), it's history can be followed from 1601 (when it was painted) to the present day.
Following the story from both ends, Harr does a wonderful job of describing how the world of art history academia deals with the finding of such paintings and their authentication. He presents all of the protagonists with their genius and foibles. He is especially sensitive to explaining how serendipity is the hand- maiden to luck and hard work.
on January 1, 2006
that the pieces don't really connect here... The heroine we meet at the beginning of the book, 24-year-old Italian graduate student Elisabeth Cappelletti, does NOT make (as the dust jacket notes claim, and many reviewers have repeated) "a discovery that inspires a search for a work of art...lost for almost two centuries." Although she does find an archive reference to the painting's original owner, in the end it has nothing at all to do with art restorer Sergio Benedetti's find in Dublin: a greasy, sagging, and exquisitely painted canvas that Benedetti immediately recognizes as a lost masterpiece in need of restoration. Indeed, Benedetti already knew about the missing painting, and had long before read the critical material that independently inspired Cappelletti on her journey. The biggest red herring of all is the elderly Sir Denis Mahon, who does nothing more in the end than nod his approval before the restored canvas.
Harr's skill as a storyteller manages to obscure (and even to make irrelevant) the fact that the multiple personal narratives are only superficially connected. In the end, Harr gives us so much color and atmosphere about Caravaggio, and the inside track (and petty jealousies) of the art historical world, that we forgive the fact that there's really not a lot of suspense here. The book manages to be a page-turner, despite everything. A most enjoyable read, and as much a tribute to a great artist as to the art of skillful storytelling.
on April 14, 2006
This book details the research and restoration efforts that led to the discovery of a lost Caravaggio painting. Whilst the research takes place within Italy, the painting itself is found and restored in Ireland. In addition to this, some aspects of Caravaggio's colourful and violent life are also discussed, and in particular the events that led up to his untimely death. Harr very writes well and I found that this book was easy to read and yet still rich in detail and descriptions.
Some reviewers have highlighted the less than dynamic tempo of this book which I think is somewhat unfair given that this is essentially non-fiction. I would agree that this book in no page-turner but the plot does move along steadily. Infact, I actually found reading this book was quite relaxing and it did not take me long to finish it. This book would be most rewarding to those who have an interest in art and in how the history and identity of centuries old pantings is traced and established in the modern world. By comparison, it is not going to be a good choice for people looking for a mystery novel or thriller.
on December 27, 2005
There are only two books that I have read in one sitting and both were written by Jonathon Harr. Suffice it to say that this man is the consummate storyteller.
What is so striking about his narrative is his character development. In a true journalistic fashion, he has no qualms about truthfully recounting events and the behavior of those involved. Take Schlichtmann from "A Civil Action" - outwardly he is the hero of the piece but in the end, the reader is faced with the question as to his true motivation.
This same reportage is presented in "Lost Painting" as the participants' recollections diverge. However, it is the events themselves that take center stage and the author is smart enough to realize this.
I saw this painting some years ago but lacked the provenance provided by this book. I look forward to seeing it again in a completely new light.
on November 10, 2005
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