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The Lost Painting

by Jonathan Harr
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • Publishing date: 07/11/2006
  • Language: English
  • ISBN: 0375759867


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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  • A worthy second book
    From Amazon

    Some authors with a best seller under their belts have been content to pump out a series of books in a similar vein. Jonathan Harr seems to be following a different path, good for him.

    Published ten years after A Civil Action, an acclaimed account of an environmental lawsuit told from the viewpoint of the attorneys involved, The Lost Painting deals with the arcane world of searching for, restoring, and authenticating art treasures.

    Readers follow in the footsteps of Francesca Cappaletti, an art history student, in search of The Taking of Christ, a long-lost painting by Caravaggio (circa 1602). She finds some leads and tracks the painting from Italy to Scotland, but there - in Edinburgh, around 1921 - the historical trail goes cold.

    Enter Sergio Benedetti, several years later, an Italian émigré who is working as a restorer of paintings at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. On being asked to clean a painting at a nearby monastery, he astutely recognizes that it may be a Caravaggio original as opposed to, say, a painting done by someone else in the master's style.

    An investigation of the painting's provenance ties in with the chain of custody established by Francesca, and the results of scientific testing are favorable. Sir Denis Mahon, viewed as perhaps the world's leading authority on the works of Caravaggio, declares that the painting is indeed The Taking of Christ. Uncertainties remain, however, and another painting will turn up that cannot be entirely ruled out.

    The action takes place over a period of years, in several different locations (meticulously described), with revealing sketches of the principals (from passions to personal foibles) and even the technical details of what they do. Yet, somehow, Harr covers it all in less than 300 pages.

    For good measure, the book relates some of joyous ups and dreadful downs in Caravaggio's life (he was probably bi-polar). This material is fascinating, but I do not think the attempt to blend it with the 20th century story is entirely successful

    In the course of working on The Lost Painting, Harr learned Italian (enabling him to conduct interviews without an interpreter) and went international (he is now said to be living in Northampton, Massachusetts and Rome). Judging from the lengthy bibliography, he also did a considerable amount of reading,

    No wonder the project took 10 years! I wonder what this talented writer will do for an encore.

  • Wonderful story
    From Amazon

    I was given the book to read by a friend who loves museums. It was a wonderful book and now when I visit museums in Rome my husband and I always head for the Caravaggio paintings (it helps that we live here). The book was interesting and I read it straight through. I have recommended it to others also.

  • Less Than Illuminating
    From Amazon

    "Less Than Illuminating - Review of Jonathan Harr's The Lost Painting"
    Daniel Jimerfield

    Caravaggio was an Italian painter who died at the age of 39 in the year 1610. During his lifetime, he had achieved a mild degree of celebrity which was not to last. It was not until 1941 that Roberto Longhi, the acclaimed art historian, began to champion Caravaggio as the "least known (Master) in Italian art." Longhi put together an exhibition in 1951 which would lead to a resurgence in appreciation of and interest in Caravaggio that continues unabated to the present. In fact, many art enthusiasts can be said to display symptoms of the "Caravaggio disease," an unhealthy obsession with the newly reconsidered Master.
    Caravaggio's style has been described as "excessive naturalism" or a "shadowy scene depicted by a single light." He is ultra dramatic and not without a certain dark humor. Arriving in Rome from Milan in 1592 at the age of 21, Caravaggio was destitute so he began to carve small, crude statues for simple room and board. He also sold paintings of his own devising on the street like other young artists. After making the acquaintance of an art dealer named Constantino Sparta, Caravaggio began to sell work to more prominent members of society. He found his first patron in Cardinal Francesco Del Monte who purchased "The Cardsharps" - a painting showing two card hustlers cheating a rich, young man out of his money. The Cardinal offered the artist room and board and the freedom to paint. Apparently, Caravaggio was an exceedingly unpleasant person - once, after the police had stopped him for carrying a sword and dagger in public, he produced a license and uttered some choice expletives. Caravaggio became embroiled in serious feuds, committed some crimes, and was forced to flee Rome. On the run and afraid, he died of exposure shortly before receiving a pardon for his misdeeds.
    Only 80 authentic Caravaggio paintings are known to exist. Many experts enjoy disputing whether versions are authentic or not. Roberto Longhi and Sir Denis Mahon, two outstanding art history minds, disagreed over which of two versions of "St. John the Baptist" was the real thing. Sir Denis Mahon's so called Capitoline version is now generally credited with authenticity. In Jonathan Harr's "The Lost Painting," he recounts this epic, academic battle in a narrative, non-fiction fashion, attempting to spice it up along the way with relatively interesting but largely inconsequential details. The true subject of the book, of course, is the long misplaced Caravaggio "The Taking of Christ," known to have existed but lost to the sands of time. Harr tries to add a romantic, racy element to the book with his inclusion of an art investigator's love life, an unneeded and distracting side plot that adds little except for perhaps more readers. The painting is eventually located in an abbey in Ireland and Harr once again moves the focus to an Italian art restorer who may or may not have slightly damaged the painting when he performed a much needed relining. Harr spends too many pages dwelling on petty, interpersonal intrigues that, in the end, have no connection to the true drama that was Caravaggio's life and passion.
    I have read a great deal of books in this genre and in the main find them to be not only highly readable but surprising and informative. I had hoped that Harr's book would fulfill some of these same qualities but I found I was disappointed. I feel "The Lost Painting" would have made an arresting, lengthy magazine article but it did not warrant a full length book.

  • Reads like Fiction
    From Amazon

    Given the dry nature of Art History this book is a great page turner. The pace and writing make this read like something out of fiction. An outstanding read.

  • DaVinci wannabe?
    From Amazon

    A great idea ruined by boring writing and a plot that wouldn't get going, and characters that garnered zero sympathy. Perhaps this book was trying to ride the coattails of the commercial success of The DaVinci Code, which is equally matched in uninspired writing style as this.

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