The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr. Random House, 2005; $24.95; 250 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
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, and a revolutionary painter. He was also a heavy drinker, who, 400 years ago, 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 60 and 80 of his works are in existence today. Many others -- no one knows the 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 copy.
Jonathan Harr embarks on a journey to discover the long-lost painting known as The Taking of Christ. After Francesca Cappelletti stumbles across a clue in a 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 assembles all the pieces of the puzzle.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly: Harr writes comfortably about complex artistic processes and enlivens the potentially tedious details of artistic restoration with his lively and articulate prose. Broken into short, succinct chapters, the narrative moves at a brisk pace.
From Booklist: Harr, a consummate storyteller...traces the...journey of The Taking of Christ in an effortlessly educating and marvelously entertaining mix of art history and scholarly sleuthing.... Harr...incisively recounts Caravaggio's wild and tragic life and offers evocative testimony to the resonance of his daring and magnificent work.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jonathan Harr lives and works in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he has taught nonfiction writing at Smith College. He is a former staff writer at New England Monthly and has written for the New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. Harr spent nine years researching and writing A Civil Action, which was published in 1995, subsequently nominated for a National Book Award, and awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
On the day that we talked, Mr. Harr was in Italy and I was at home in California. "Actually," Mr. Harr said, "I'm in Verugia, a beautiful hill town in Umbria. I love Rome, but it's big and it's dirty and it's a city -- there's lots of traffic. So I'm taking a rest before I come back to the U.S. I have in front of me a garden that must be -- God, it must be ten acres. It overlooks the entire valley of Sculeto. This is a tiny house that I've rented very cheaply. I have grape vines hanging here. It's quite gorgeous." Mr. Harr told me that he was born in 1948 in Blake, Wisconsin. He was one of seven, some of whom were half-brothers and sisters.
"My father," Mr. Harr said, "was in the diplomatic corps. I had a very itinerant life. When I was three, we went to Israel for three years. My father came back to Chicago and he got a master's degree in political science. Then he went to Berkeley for a Ph.D. in political science and then went back to Washington, D.C., and to France and then Germany. When I was 12, we were living in Berkeley."
Mr. Harr was a bookish child. "When I was in first grade we used to get prizes for reading books. You made chains out of colored pieces of paper. You read a book and made a report on it, and you'd be given another ring of the chain.
"In my first grade class I was the best for a while. The first book I remember being in love with was a children's book that won The Newbery. It was about the Civil War and it was called Rifles for Watie. It was essentially a love story and affected me greatly. I was ten years old. I read The Hardy Boys, but the first book that I really got interested in was a large, complete volume of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes that my father had. I still have that volume. I read it when I was about 11.
"On my twelfth birthday, my father gave me 12 books. Among them were, incredible books: 1984, The Count of Monte Cristo, Beau Geste, Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, a very political book which I didn't understand from a political standpoint."
Mr. Harr attended William and Mary in Virginia. "We were living at the time in Washington, D.C. My father was with the State Department. I dropped out of William and Mary after two years.
"I became a Vista volunteer in West Virginia. The Vietnam War was going on, and I hated William and Mary. I wasn't ready to be a student. After my Vista year was up, I stayed in West Virginia and went to Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, for one year. I never finished. I dropped out for good."
"My first job was with a small group of newspapers, which still exists. I ended up in New Haven, Connecticut. I worked for The New Haven Register , very briefly, the traditional daily newspaper, which was an awful paper. There was an alternative weekly given away free called The Advocate . I wrote for them for several years. It was my training ground. Alternative papers can be wonderful workplaces. You can write long pieces. They don't have to be the classic, daily paper pieces."