Months before he completed what would become his 1995 award-winning bestseller A Civil Action (and years before it was turned into the hit movie starring John Travolta), Jonathan Harr ran out of money.
So when an editor from the New York Times magazine called and asked him to write a piece for the magazine, Harr leapt at the chance. The story he ended up pursuing was about the improbable discovery in Ireland of a painting by the great Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio that had been missing for 200 years. Harr sensed there was a bigger story to be told and proposed writing a book about it to his agent. Alas, A Civil Action had not yet been published to critical and popular acclaim, and Harr was not famous. His agent told him nobody would give him the money he needed to do the research for the book.
"I just let it go," Harr says during a call to Perugia, Italy, where he has recently completed a course in Italian literature and is now writing short fiction. Harr and his wife live most of the year in Northampton, Massachusetts, but they also have an apartment in Rome. "Rome is noisy and chaotic," Harr says. "It was wonderful when I first got there, but I’m getting a little tired of it. I needed to get out. Perugia is very quiet, very peaceful, very beautiful." After the rebuff from his agent, Harr spent a few years exploring other book ideas another legal book along the lines of A Civil Action, then an archaeological dig on the Syrian-Turkish border. For any number of reasons these projects didn’t pan out, and he eventually returned to his interest in the subject of The Lost Painting.
Lucky for us.
The Lost Painting is an engrossing and exhilarating weave of art history, detective work and human drama. In conversation, Harr says he struggled to bring the threads of this story together. But his struggles will be invisible to most readers. Here, as in A Civil Action, Harr is able to find the right measure of technical detail and emotional conflict to make his intersecting narratives come alive. This is all the more remarkable because the story shifts between modern-day Rome and Dublin, where scholars and art restorers vie to find and authenticate Caravaggio’s painting, and late 16th-century Rome, when Caravaggio walked its streets.
Caravaggio was a violent, temperamental artist who left a vivid trail in police and court records in Rome, died young and somewhat mysteriously in exile, and created some of the most sublimely beautiful paintings of the era. Harr agrees with editors of the British art journal Burlington who assert that Caravaggio is the first realist painter. "A lot of his paintings are religious paintings, although there’s a big debate about how religious he was," Harr says. "I think he wasn’t religious at all. But he painted these religious scenes using everyday people, the clothing that people were dressed in at the time, and he painted them with dramatic intensity, all of which was new. He really invented that dark background with a single source of light outside of the painting. His paintings have a drama and a vividness that nobody before had."
As interesting as Caravaggio’s story is, it actually pales in comparison to the story Harr tells of Francesca Cappelletti, a young Italian art researcher who with her colleague, Laura Testa, made a seemingly small discovery in the dank, poorly kept archives of the once-grand Antici-Mattei family that would prove invaluable to the authentication of Caravaggio’s lost painting called "The Taking of Christ." Francesca was "wonderfully cooperative and open," Harr says. "If she hadn’t been, I simply would have gone on to something else." Harr deploys Francesca’s truly astonishing openness about all aspects of her life to great effect. Through her story, he is able to convey both the intellectual and the emotional importance of what might otherwise seem dry and dusty research.
Far less cooperative was the other main protagonist in Harr’s narrative, an Italian art restorer working at the Irish national gallery named Sergio Benedetti. "A difficult and complicated man," Sergio was the first to suspect that a painting he was asked to examine by Irish Jesuits was an original Caravaggio.
"It was Sergio’s absolute burning desire to climb out of the basement of restoration into something more exalted, into being an art historian, which in Italy is the equivalent of being a doctor or a lawyer," Harr says. Along the way Sergio apparently made some critical misjudgments while restoring the Caravaggio painting. "He’s committed no crime," Harr hastens to add. "He made a mistake due to his own ardor and anxiety, his own desire to see this painting [acknowledged]."
Harr frets that Sergio’s unwillingness to talk openly about his mistake weakens his story. "He’s litigious, too," Harr says, "so I anticipate problems." But in fact, Sergio’s prickly reticence makes for an illuminating contrast with Francesca’s openness. And it allows or forces Harr to write in some detail about the technology and techniques of art restoration, something he does exceptionally well.
"I love the research, love putting things together. It’s like solving a puzzle," Harr says near the end of our conversation. And in The Lost Painting, he delivers an enthralling solution to the 200-year-old puzzle of what happened to Caravaggio’s lost painting.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.