Without a Trace

Caravaggio used himself as the model for the man holding the lamp (far right) in the rediscovered 1602 painting,
Caravaggio used himself as the model for the man holding the lamp (far right) in the rediscovered 1602 painting, "The Taking of Christ." (National Gallery Of Ireland And The Jesuit Community. Photo By Ap)
Reviewed by Jabari Asim
Sunday, December 25, 2005


The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece

By Jonathan Harr

Random House. 271 pp. $24.95

Early in The Lost Painting , Jonathan Harr's first book since his bestselling A Civil Action (1995), he mentions "the Caravaggio disease," a frenzied obsession that takes hold of some scholars who study the painter's work. It is probably safe to say that in recent years the mania has spread beyond the groves of academe to the larger world of art and commerce. The reputation of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, a violent, mercurial genius who created paintings of astonishing power during his brief, bloody life, has risen dramatically over the past few decades.

It climbed from abysmal depths. "By the end of the seventeenth century, he was regarded as a minor painter of low repute," Harr writes. Caravaggio's critical ascent began in 1951, when scholar Roberto Longhi assembled an exhibition of his work in Milan. It has gathered momentum since then, creating a splash in 1998, when three major biographies were published: Caravaggio: A Life , by Helen Langdon; M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio , by Peter Robb; and Caravaggio , by Catherine Puglisi. And writers continue to fall under the painter's spell. In addition to Harr's book, Francine Prose weighed in this fall with an entry in HarperCollins's Eminent Lives series (see below). What, one may wonder, can Harr offer besides yet another chronology of Caravaggio's rise, fall and rise?

Not to worry: Harr focuses more on the obsession with the master's art than on his tumultuous existence. Caravaggio, who was born in or around Milan in 1571 and died 60 miles north of Rome at age 39, left behind fewer than 80 paintings. Several were destroyed, and others, Harr writes, "have simply vanished over the centuries." The surviving paintings seldom change hands and are worth as much as $70 to $80 million each. The scant supply and high demand have inspired feverish quests for his lost masterpieces. For years, the most sought after of those was "The Taking of Christ," a legendary painting "that had been missing for hundreds of years."

Writing in 1969, Roberto Longhi deduced that the painting may have been sold to a Scotsman in 1802 and perhaps was "hanging in obscurity in some small church" somewhere in the British Isles. As it turns out, Longhi's educated guess was not far off the mark. In 1990, "The Taking of Christ" was found mounted on a wall in Ireland's St. Ignatius Residence, a home for Jesuit priests. "It was dark," Harr writes, "the entire surface obscured by a film of dust, grease, and soot. The varnish had turned a yellowish brown, giving the flesh tones in the faces and hands a tobacco-like hue. The robe worn by Christ had turned the color of dead leaves." After careful restoring, it was publicly unveiled at the National Gallery of Art in Ireland in 1993.

Writing from more than a decade's distance about a search whose outcome is already known, Harr has little mystery to work with here. And though he makes brief mention of rivalries among the art cognoscenti involved in the story, no villain emerges to provide conflict, spice and narrative momentum. In less skilled hands, such conditions are a recipe for deadly dullness. But Harr is a proven talent and a shrewd one as well. He wraps his tale around three central figures: Sir Denis Mahon, a nonagenarian and the world's foremost Caravaggio expert; Francesca Cappelletti, whose research as a 24-year-old graduate student helped lead the way to the lost painting; and Sergio Benedetti, a talented but frustrated restorer who actually found it. Hovering in the background is Caravaggio himself, whose turbulent misadventures Harr judiciously weaves throughout.

The three principals are portrayed with sympathy and delicacy, though Harr makes no attempt to soften their shortcomings. Benedetti's rough edges are exposed the most. Cappelletti describes the terse, secretive restorer-turned-discoverer as "the sort of man who, if you asked him, 'How are you today?' would say, 'Fine, fine. But don't tell anybody.' "

Still, it is Mahon who proves most intriguing -- and most inscrutable. A lifelong bachelor, he loathes human contact but loves rich foods, Savile Row suits and fine art. Paid vast sums to authenticate masterpieces, Mahon is motivated as much by boundless curiosity as financial interest. Harr tells us that he "believed that by studying the work of an artist he could penetrate the depths of that man's mind."

Harr waits more than 200 pages before bringing Mahon, Cappelletti and Benedetti together, giving us plenty of time to familiarize ourselves with each of them as they head toward their inevitable, triumphant climax. Along the way, Harr's lean, observant prose provides sensory intimacy without sensory overload. For example, when Cappelletti returns to the dusty archive where she uncovers valuable clues, the author takes note of "the same bare bulb and stale, damp fungal odor of stone and earth, the same opened boxes of documents and stacks of volumes on the floor, the same piles of folders and books on the table." He also provides fascinating glimpses into the restorer's art as Benedetti returns "The Taking of Christ" to its pristine glory. Benedetti's recipe for glue, an essential tool for restorers, seems made of ingredients taken from a sorcerer's spell-book: "a quantity of pellets of colla forte made with rabbit-skin glue, an equal quantity of water, a tablespoon of white vinegar, a pungent drop of purified ox bile, and a dollop of molasses to give the mixture elasticity."

He also provides an illuminating window into the tenderness and surgical exactitude with which restorers ply their trade. He quotes one veteran restorer who describes paintings as "breathing, half-organic entities: It's a good thing they can't cry . . . otherwise you would go to museums and have to put your fingers in your ears."

Harr is a dogged, patient inquisitor who learned Italian so that he wouldn't have to rely on translators as he conducted his hundreds of interviews. At times one wonders about the veracity of the dialogue when whole conversations are recalled, but only briefly, because Harr uses that approach so sparingly. What's more, he avoids falling in love with his own voice, as writers of his skill level occasionally do.

Wisely, he's content to let these passionate, eccentric and knowledgeable personalities occupy center stage. The result is a revealing portrait of a world seldom seen by ordinary folks, in which Mahon, Cappelletti, Benedetti and their peers obsessively while away the hours, "always in the company of other scholars, always talking about art." At its best, Harr's magnetic storytelling recalls Cappelletti's first encounter with the work of Caravaggio. To her, his paintings seemed "to pulse with heat and life, capturing a moment in time like a scene glimpsed through a window."

Jabari Asim is deputy editor of Book World.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company