An art-world mystery tale, artfully told

November 06, 2005|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

The Lost Painting

Jonathan Harr

Random House / 250 pages

Critics may dream of finding the Next New Thing, but for art historians the really big discoveries are about things that already have happened, preferably a long time ago.

Just such a discovery propels Jonathan Harr's sparkling true story of how an unlikely pair of art pilgrims -- she, a bright but unknown young scholar in Rome; he, an obscure museum conservator in Dublin -- uncovered one of the greatest finds of the 20th century, a lost masterpiece by the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio that disappeared nearly 400 years earlier.

Harr wrote A Civil Action, one of the biggest-selling nonfiction books of the 1990s, which traced a civil lawsuit against a chemical manufacturer accused of poisoning people in a Massachusetts town, and he brings the same genius for storytelling and gift for detailed investigative reporting to his latest project.

When The Lost Painting opens, Francesca Cappelletti is a 24-year-old graduate student in art history at the University of Rome who moonlights as a researcher for a businessman hoping to develop a potentially lucrative online database of Italy's vast trove of art.

Cappelletti's routine mostly involves double-checking attributions and provenances of well-known paintings. But her search into the musty archives of an ancient aristocratic family fallen on hard times unexpectedly turns up a tantalizing trace of what may be the original version of one of Caravaggio's greatest works, The Taking of Christ, which vanished after the painter's death in 1610.

It's nothing more than a notation in an old account ledger dated 1616, but it's enough to suggest that the family had once owned the painting. A somewhat later entry indicates that a similar painting was sold to an English buyer -- but curiously, now it's no longer described as a work by Caravaggio. Instead, it's listed as the work of a minor Dutch master who once worked in Rome. The little lightbulb that goes off in Cappelletti's brain convinces her that the new attribution is a deliberate falsification, most likely created as a ruse to avoid Italian export duties.

As a lowly graduate student, however, Cappelletti doesn't have the clout to take matters further -- and anyway, in 1989, when the clue turns up, she has no idea where the painting might be even if it still exists.

Enter Sergio Benedetti, a frustrated, mostly self-taught art historian who makes a meager living restoring old paintings in the artistic backwater of Ireland's National Gallery in Dublin. All his life Benedetti hoped to make an important contribution to his field, but he's come up empty.

Until, that is, the rector of a local Jesuit monastery walks in one day to have the grime cleaned off some dusty old paintings in the order's residence. Though they're described as only "some dark copies of Old Masters, the sort of thing you find in lots of Irish religious houses," Benedetti immediately begins to suspect one of them may be the long-lost Caravaggio.

How Benedetti and Cappelletti find out about each other's separate inquiries, meet and compare notes, and finally announce their discovery is the meat of this tale, which reads like a whodunit, romantic thriller and scholarly monograph rolled into one. (Alas, though there's plenty of passion in the book, it's all directed toward the painting.)

Along the way, we're given an inside look at the tedium and the exhilaration of serious art historical research, as well as the petty rivalries, backbiting and egotism of its practitioners, a colorful cast of real-life charmers, dreamers and oddballs worthy of a novelist's vivid imagination.

Into the mix, Harr weaves a truncated but compelling account of Caravaggio's vagabond, violent life and sordid death, and relates them to the great religious paintings whose uncompromising realism and unprecedented intensity forever changed the course of European art.

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@baltsun.com

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