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Friday, November 11, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Book Reviews

Caravaggio: From shadows into light

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece"
by Jonathan Harr
Random House, 271 pp., $24.95

"Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles"
by Francine Prose
HarperCollins, 149 pp., $19.95

Garage-sale mavens with an eye for art have often thrilled to the tantalizing thought. What if that dusty old painting leaning against the back wall that looks a little like a Picasso, really is, well, a Picasso? Weirder things happen. And "lost" paintings by famous painters are occasionally found tucked away in attics or hung in plain sight of people who lack the art sophistication to know what they've got.

If you're an art historian or an art conservator, however, "discovering" a lost painting is the Holy Grail. If an art professional is fortunate enough or smart enough to find a painting that was once known to exist but is now "lost" — meaning that art historians do not (now) know who owns it or where it is — the discovery can change the course of the discoverer's career.

Jonathan Harr's fast-paced new nonfiction work, "The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece," is such a tale. Written as an art-world page turner, the book describes how a couple of plucky Rome-based Italian graduate students and an Italian art conservator working in Dublin, Ireland, trace the whereabouts of "The Taking of Christ," a painting by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), the astonishingly gifted artist known simply as Caravaggio. Though records kept by Caravaggio's 17h-century patrons indicated that "The Taking of Christ" was painted, the painting had been "lost" for several hundred years.

Coming up

Jonathan Harr, author of "The Lost Painting," will read at 7 p.m. Monday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333; www.thirdplacebooks.com). He will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle's University Book Store (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).

The detective story starts in 1989, when the graduate students begin researching archives as part of a project to distinguish once and for all which of two versions of a famous Caravaggio called "St. John" is real and which is the copy. As they delve into archives located in remote parts of Italy, however, the students find references to "The Taking of Christ," a painting believed to show the dramatic moment when Judas kisses Jesus, betraying him to the Romans who will crucify him.

One of the students, Francesca Cappelletti, is especially dogged. In the next few years her research takes her to archives, museums and auction houses in London, Rome and Edinburgh, in her effort to solve the mystery of the lost painting. Other characters include Sir Denis Mahon, a dignified 85-year-old English art historian who is the world's leading Caravaggio scholar, and Sergio Benedetti, an Italian art conservator who feels marooned in the art-world backwater of Dublin. But when Benedetti makes a courtesy call to a Jesuit monastery that wants a few of its dusty old paintings polished up, the story takes an exciting twist.

Harr, who has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, is a nonfiction writer of note, having won the National Book Critics Award for Nonfiction for "A Civil Action," a case study of the U.S. legal system. And in this book he uses his skills in literary journalism to outline Caravaggio's difficult and short life, while also shining a light on the arcane world of academic art history and restoration. Readers will learn, for example, that to reline an old painting with new canvas includes cooking up a pot of glue made of white vinegar, molasses and purified ox bile.

As with all literary journalism, skeptics may justifiably wonder how Harr has re-created the exact dialogue of meetings to which he was not privy, and this reader found discussions of Cappelletti's romantic life little more than speed bumps in an otherwise brisk narrative. Still, for anyone who is remotely interested in art and art history, Harr's account of the lost Caravaggio is engaging.

And if you haven't read the several much larger biographies of Caravaggio published in recent years, Francine Prose's "Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles," is a worthy alternative. One of the slim volumes in Harper Collins' Eminent Lives series, it is tautly written and insightful. Known for her fine essays and fiction, Prose also frequently writes art criticism for The Wall Street Journal.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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