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.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
Given the relative obscurity of 16th-century the Italian baroque master and all-around creative bad boy Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who after a flare of fame remained relatively unknown from his death until the 1950s, the 1992 discovery of the artist's missing painting The Taking of Christ understandably stirred up a frenzy in academic circles. Harr's skillful and long-awaited follow-up to 1997's A Civil Action provides a finely detailed account of the fuss. While contoured brush strokes and pentimenti repaints have little to do with the toxic waters and legalese Harr dissected in his debut, the author 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 unfolds at a brisk pace, skipping quickly from the perspective of 91-year-old Caravaggio scholar Sir Denis Mahon to that of young, enterprising Francesca Cappelletti, a graduate student at the University of Rome researching the disappearance of The Taking of Christ. The mystery ends with Sergio Benedetti, a restorer at the National Gallery of Ireland, who ultimately discovers the lost, grime-covered masterpiece in a house owned by Jesuit priests. But while adept at coordinating dates and analyzing hairline fractures in aged paint, Harr often seems overly concerned with the step-by-step process of tracking down The Taking of the Christ, as if the specific artist who created it were irrelevant. Granted, Harr is not an art historian, but his lack of artistic analysis of Caravaggio's paintings may frustrate readers who wish to know more about the naturalistic Italian's works. (Nov. 1) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 09, 2006
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Excerpt from The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr
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 Trinitý 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 truthýthat she simply lost track of time while reading an essay on iconographyýseemed somehow insufficient.