three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
20-Jan-Feb-2006
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The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece

A-LostPaintingIn 1989, Francesca Cappelletti, a 24-year-old art history grad student at the University of Rome, discovered an account ledger in an old family archive—a clue that possibly pointed to the existence of Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio’s long-lost masterpiece, The Taking of Christ, which vanished in 1616. Despite evidence that the painting’s identity might have been falsified, Cappelletti started to track its whereabouts. Simultaneously, Sergio Benedetti, an obscure art restorer at the National Gallery of Ireland, suspected that one of the "copies" of paintings he’d been hired to clean in a Jesuit residence just might be the disappeared painting. When Cappelletti’s and Benedetti’s paths finally converged, they returned Caravaggio’s masterpiece to posterity.
Random House. 288 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0375508015

Baltimore Sun 4 of 5 Stars
"This is a tale well told, with sharply drawn portraits of the main players and incisive discussions of the paintings that make the book hard to put down until the last page." Glenn McNatt

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Harr’s account of the search for a lost 17th-century masterpiece may be this year’s most exciting detective story. … What Harr’s story resembles most, however, is a behind-the-scenes book like Thomas Watson’s The Double Helix, which captured the drama of the hunt for the structure of DNA in the context of the personalities and rivalries involved." David Walton

Newsday 3.5 of 5 Stars
"With The Lost Painting, he has chosen a much simpler story [than A Civil Action], but he bestows on it all of his narrative gifts. … [The] scene in which Benedetti relines the painting is as harrowing as any courtroom battle." Erica Marcus

San Diego Union-Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Lost Painting is a sunnier story, even if its central characters … become just as consumed with their ambitions. … Harr recounts their odysseys with admirable subtlety." Robert L. Pincus

Chicago Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"His style is dull, he dwells on boring minutiae, he has a poor ear for speech, and he is better at describing process, such as the cleaning of the painting, than what people think or look like. Caravaggio’s thrilling clarity may have inspired his project, but unfortunately not his prose." Richard Stern

Entertainment Weekly 2 of 5 Stars
"Harr is a smooth writer, but some of his novelistic detail seems dubiously re-created (how can he know his subject ate an ‘antipasto of mixed seafood marinated in olive oil and lemon juice’ at lunch over a decade ago?). And art students combing through musty painting inventories isn’t especially gripping, at least compared to the painter’s own life story, which gets glancing treatment." Gregory Kirschling

Critical Summary

After his award-winning A Civil Action (1995), about a civil lawsuit against a chemical manufacturer, Harr set high expectations. Critics agree that Lost Painting, on which he first reported in the New York Times Magazine, is gripping—but not as enthralling as his legal thriller. Still, Harr uses his excellent investigative reporting and storytelling skills to deliver a fast-paced account of art historical research, from the interpersonal backstabbing to the painstaking process of cleaning the painting. Unfortunately, Harr’s portrayal of his two main characters suffers in comparison to his depiction of Caravaggio, a rebellious, brilliant street fighter who transformed European art. Nevertheless, most readers, whether Caravaggio aficionados or novices to Baroque art, will enjoy this scholarly thriller and homage to the artist.

Supplemental Reading

Caravaggio Painter of Miracles | Francine Prose (2005): In this short biography, Prose uses her art-critic’s eye to examine the revolutionary art and short, tumultuous life of Caravaggio.