A Painting's Story, Told Stroke by Stroke

The author Jonathan Harr traveled to Ireland, England and Italy in his meticulous effort to re-create the search for Caravaggio's lost painting.
The author Jonathan Harr traveled to Ireland, England and Italy in his meticulous effort to re-create the search for Caravaggio's lost painting. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 29, 2005

The National Gallery of Art doesn't own any paintings by the great baroque realist Caravaggio, but there's a slide of one of his religious dramas being projected on an East Building screen right now. A soldier in black looms menacingly out of the darkness, extending an arm to seize a downcast Jesus. A treacherous disciple pulls back from his infamous kiss. And look, in the back: There's a wide-eyed bystander with a lantern, said to be a self-portrait by the ragged, revolutionary Italian painter who brought "The Taking of Christ" to life in 1602.

Below and to the side, a lectern reading light lends a painterly glow to the face of today's speaker, nonfiction maestro Jonathan Harr. For just a moment, lecturer and subject appear to merge, and you imagine that Harr has come to physically inhabit the world of "The Lost Painting," his book on the disappearance and rediscovery of the treasure now on the screen.

This is an illusion, of course, but it's a suggestive one. A major theme of "The Lost Painting" is the longing of scholars to bridge the gap between present and past. It's a longing the 57-year-old Harr totally understands: After all, what wouldn't he give for an interview with Caravaggio, who died on the run in the summer of 1610?

"Thirty minutes with the man, just give me 30 minutes," he muses while being interviewed himself, the day before his National Gallery talk. He's full of questions for the quick-tempered brawler who was forced to flee Rome after he killed a man in a street fight: "Were you sleeping with Lena? Is that why you hit the notary, Mariano Pasqualone? Did you intend to kill Ranuccio Tomassoni, or were you just . . . ?"

You'd really need hours, of course. "But if you could have only 30 minutes, what an incredible gift that would be."

Fortunately for Harr, the main subject of his book is not the artist himself but a clutch of contemporary Caravaggio scholars -- in particular, a young Italian art historian named Francesca Cappelletti, whose crucial discovery in a musty archive helped establish that "The Taking of Christ" was the real thing.

Unfortunately he wasn't hanging with Cappelletti in 1989, when she made her discovery. He had to reconstruct the scene, along with almost everything else in "The Lost Painting."

This was a major change -- to put it mildly -- from the book for which he is best known.

"A Civil Action," published in 1995 after more than eight years of reporting and writing, turned the story of a complex, protracted environmental lawsuit into a mesmerizing page-turner. "Whether in truth or fiction, I have never read a more compelling chronicle of litigation," John Grisham wrote.

That book gained much of its power from Harr's up-close observation of the plaintiffs' lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, who became its central figure. Harr got so far inside his story that when the charismatic, egomaniacal Schlichtmann went broke and started sleeping in his office, the writer bunked in the room next door. Who needs bridges to the past when your subject is a few yards away, pleading with a witness on the phone at 6 a.m. while you groggily take notes?

Harr was there in part because he was broke, too. When he'd negotiated an $80,000 advance for "A Civil Action," he'd been a modestly compensated magazine writer at the now-defunct New England Monthly. His editor, Daniel Okrent, tried to talk him out of the project.

"You'll find yourself scrounging for quarters hidden in car seats," Okrent warned him.

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