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Synopsis

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.

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.
Jonathan Harr|Author Q&A

About Jonathan Harr

Jonathan Harr - The Lost Painting

Photo © Sandro Cutri

Jonathan Harr is the author of the national bestseller A Civil Action, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and The Lost Painting, a New York Times bestseller. 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

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Jonathan Harr

With The Lost Painting you have made a complete departure from the courtroom drama of your national bestseller A Civil Action. In the new book you track the mysterious fate of one of Caravaggio’s greatest works and the circumstances of its disappearance. Where did you come across the story of Caravaggio’s “The Taking of Christ” and what about it captured your interest?

I happened upon the story of the lost painting by Caravaggio purely by chance, in a brief newspaper article. At the time I had not yet finished writing A Civil Action, but I was already on the lookout for something fresh and different to work on next. I used to collect ideas for possible stories or books in a manila folder that grew absurdly large. For me, the easy part, the fun part, is collecting ideas for new projects. It only becomes difficult once I’ve committed myself to an idea and begin to understand the dimensions of it.

The newspaper article about the Caravaggio painting was only four or five paragraphs and it raised more questions than it answered. But I thought then that the bare bones of the story–a lost masterpiece of incalculable value that suddenly emerges out of the past–had the elements of the sort of narrative I was looking for. Even better, Caravaggio had been a brilliantly innovative painter, and also a renegade who had killed a man and become a social outcast. In other words, a great character to write about. The article didn’t offer much detail about the discovery of the painting, and I immediately began asking myself questions: How had it been found? How had it gotten lost for two centuries? How had it ended up in Dublin? It was a puzzle–or a mystery, if you will–and I wanted to find the answers, which is always a good sign when I’m beginning a project.

Once I started looking into it, the puzzle turned out to be more interesting and more complicated than it appeared. And that, too, was a good sign.


The Lost Painting is a wonderful synthesis of history and detective story. Where did you begin your research and did you run into any obstacles along the way?

I began my research in Dublin, where the painting was found, and from there I started working my way backward, trying to piece together the painting’s past. I knew the broad outlines of its discovery after talking with Francesca Cappelletti and Sergio Benedetti, but there were gaps in the narrative. I approached it as if it were a detective story, which is, to my mind, one of the great genres of literature and one of the best engines for propelling a narrative forward.

Unlike A Civil Action, in which I was able to watch events unfold in front of me, I had to recreate the events in The Lost Painting. I wanted the book to have the sort of texture that A Civil Action did, an intimate sense of place and character, a texture often associated with novels, and now with what is now called “literary journalism.” To get that feel, I needed lots of small details, and that in turn required dozens of interviews with the people involved in finding the painting. I was constantly asking the characters in my book questions that, in the overall scheme of the narrative, might have seemed insignificant–what somebody was wearing on a given day, or what they ate, what they said or thought at a given point, what the weather was like–but those details provided the sort of texture I wanted. I remember beginning many interviews with apologies for asking apparently idiotic questions about inconsequential facts. It took a while for some people to understand what I was after, but in the end almost everybody proved very cooperative.

I had to learn Italian to do many of these interviews. I came to Rome not speaking a word of Italian. I took a few lessons, and then I started reading the daily newspapers, novels by Alberto Moravia, and hanging out in a café on Via del Babuino called Il Notegen, a wonderful place where a bunch of eccentric writers, poets and artists would gather. Fortunately, Francesca speaks English pretty well. But she much preferred to speak to me in Italian. The first few interviews with her were in English, and then a mix of Italian and English, and finally just in Italian. Laura Testa, on the other hand, speaks no English. I had my first interview with her after I’d been in Rome for three months, over coffee near the Piazza Navona. It was comical. But it was also, oddly, productive. In some perverse way, I think that speaking the language with difficulty was an asset–I had an excuse to ask the same question many times, and to ask people to repeat themselves. In the end I often drew forth more than I might have in English.
The fascinating details of Caravaggio’s strange, turbulent career and the astonishing beauty of his work come to life in The Lost Painting. What is your own fascination with Caravaggio?

Caravaggio–both the man and his art–seems to exert a strange and powerful attraction, even among art historians, a phenomenon that Francesca mockingly called “the Caravaggio disease.” I first encountered his work in 1986 at a large exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I remember being struck by the power of his paintings, by how vivid and accessible they were, how immediate their impact. You didn’t have to study art history or know the iconology of the paintings to appreciate them. The Burlington Magazine, the prestigious British journal of art history, called Caravaggio “the first modern painter.”

My fascination with him consists of three distinct parts. His art, of course, and not just as we modern viewers see it today, but in realizing how utterly original and revolutionary it was in his own time. He created a new style, one as radically different from what others were painting in that era as Cubism is from Impressionism. And then there is the man, the genius beset by his own demons, constantly in trouble and making trouble, and yet able to create these masterpieces amid the chaos of his life. Of course, no one would care about the life of a tormented artist if he painted lousy pictures, but in his case genius and a spellbinding biography happen to go hand in hand.

The third thing that intrigues me is that for almost three centuries he disappeared from view. People who have never studied art history have heard of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo, the great triumvirate of the Renaissance. Caravaggio has entered that pantheon, but up until the 1950s he was unknown even to most art historians. I’m fascinated by the sweep of history, how taste and fashion and style can change with such abruptness.


How rare is a discovery like “The Taking of Christ” to the art world?

The discovery of a painting as important as “The Taking of Christ” has become a relatively rare event nowadays. Sixty years ago, when Caravaggio was just beginning to come back into the focus of art historians, his paintings–mislabeled, misattributed, and misplaced–began turning up with some frequency. By now that ground is fairly well worked over, but certainly there are more discoveries to be made. As best anyone can determine, he painted around 130 works, of which only 70 or 80 have been identified (although there’s plenty of dispute about some of those attributions). It’s probable that some of those missing paintings have been destroyed, and it’s equally probably that a few still exist and will yet be found.

One example is a painting of St. Sebastian that was, it seems, owned very briefly by Ciriaco Mattei’s brother, Asdrubale. Ciriaco had owned the lost painting, “The Taking of Christ.” “The St. Sebastian” makes a single brief appearance in Asdrubale’s archive. He apparently owned it only for four or five years, because after that first mention it never appears again in his inventories. Eighty years later, the painting was reported in France, but it’s never been found. Sergio Benedetti told me that he would like to search for it, but the last documentary mention of it was in the 1680s, so where does one start?


From the Hardcover edition.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

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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