“The past held many secrets, and gave them up grudgingly. Sir Denis believed that a painting was like a window back into time, that with meticulous study he could peer into a work by Caravaggio and observe that moment, four hundred years ago, when the artist was in his studio, studying the model before him, mixing colors on his palette, putting brush to canvas. Sir Denis believed that by studying the work of an artist he could penetrate the depths of that manʼs mind ... And no copy, however good, could possibly reveal those depths. That would be like glimpsing a manʼs shadow and thinking you could know the man.” — Jonathan Harr, The Lost Painting
As an art history major, my ears naturally perk up whenever I hear “Caravaggio.” After spending a semester studying his work in Rome, Italy, simply hearing the name conjures up stirring images of dimly lit churches with illuminated Caravaggio masterpieces adorning the walls. I remember well when in a far corner of the nave in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, close to the Pantheon, my professor dropped a coin in a small box to light up three paintings. Known as the Matthew Cycle, they instantaneously breathed life into the church walls with Caravaggio’s mastery of dramatic lighting, intimate facial expressions, and fluid movement as he captured pivotal moments in Saint Matthew’s life.
Viewing these Caravaggio paintings was an intoxicating moment as I drank in the intricate and sensual details. I was, and am, not alone. Thousands of Caravaggio scholars dedicate their lives to the study of his work, roused by the same enchantment that gripped me standing in the church nave. For many scholars, this captivation grows into an addiction, an addiction rooted in a compelling quest — who will find the next Caravaggio painting?
In The Lost Painting, Jonathan Harr unfolds such a quest. In the 1990s, the lives of a young Roman girl, a renowned Caravaggio scholar, and an obscure museum restorer collide in search of “The Taking of Christ,” a painting the disappearance of which, shrouded in mystery, bewitched Caravaggio hunters for years.
Like Caravaggio, Harr deftly breathes life into his characters with a vivid beauty that draws the reader into the story in the same spellbinding manner as a Caravaggio painting. As Harr guides the reader from clue to clue in search of the lost painting — from Roman libraries overlooking picturesque piazzas, to an old family archive located in a dusty basement in Recanati, Italy, to a Jesuit residence in Dublin, Ireland — he also intertwines the life story of Caravaggio, the true protagonist.
Caravaggio, a passionate and temperamental man, led a tumultuous life full of love affairs, sword fights, and escapes from the law. Harr unpacks the life of Caravaggio with the same suspense as he unfolds the quest for the artist’s painting almost 400 years later. The search begins when the beautiful and vivacious Francesca Cappelletti, a young art history student in Rome, is tasked along with a fellow student, Laura Testa, to research a different Caravaggio painting in the Doria Pamphili family collection, “St. John the Baptist.”
The painting’s authenticity was questioned by the prestigious Caravaggio scholar Sir Denis Mahon when he declared the Capitoline Gallery painting as the original. This proclamation sparked a heated debate among art historians and collectors. Francesca and Laura’s research on “St. John the Baptist” led them to an unexpected vital clue in discovering the long-lost painting, “The Taking of Christ,” which launched a renewed interest in the frenzied Caravaggio “treasure hunt.”
Thousands of miles away in Dublin, Ireland, Sergio Benedetti, an Italian art restorer employed at the National Gallery of Ireland, is asked to restore an otherwise unremarkable Jesuit painting as an act of charity on behalf of the museum. As Sergio works meticulously on the restoration process, he becomes intimately acquainted with the painting, and a burning question consumes him, lighting his body and mind up with the thought — “Could this be the lost Caravaggio painting?” Does Sergio, an uneducated and unknown art restorer simply have the infamous “Caravaggio fever,” or, has he beat the most elite Caravaggio scholars in the world in discovering “The Taking of the Christ”?
Through vivid imagery, Harr paints his own masterpiece throughout the book as he writes an enthralling art history detective story. He diligently follows the trail of men and women frantically uncovering clues in a worldwide race to find the lost Caravaggio painting, allowing the reader to experience the same thrill of the treasure hunt and, perhaps, even catch the “Caravaggio fever.”