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The Lost Painting, by Jonathan Harr
After reading, and loathing, "Angels and Demons" and "The DaVinci Code" by Dan Brown (both of which I will get around to reviewing eventually), I became interested in looking for actually good books of historical mystery. And though it is non-fiction (or perhaps because it is non-fiction) and lacks chase scenes and gunfights, "The Lost Painting" is one of those books.
The book is the story of three real people: Denis Mahon, Francesca Cappelletti, and Sergio Benedetti, and their role in finding the lost Caravaggio masterpiece, "The Taking of Christ," which shows the soldiers arresting Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a painter who lived during the 16th and 17th centuries. One of the techniques that was popular during his era is called "chiaroscuro," which uses spotlighting techniques to emphasize the subjects in the painting. Caravaggio was a master of chiaroscuro, making the shadows pronounced almost to the point where they were figures in the painting in their own rights.
A number of art historians, including Mahon, have become obsessed with Caravaggio. As the book opens, Cappelletti was a graduate student working under another Caravaggio aficionado, and with a third as her adviser. As part of her work, Cappelletti was researching a Caravaggio painting of John the Baptist when she found a reference to "The Taking of Christ." As the painting had disappeared around two hundred years earlier, her interest was understandably piqued.
Caravaggio lived for a time in the palazzo of the Mattei family. During this period, he painted "The Taking of Christ" as a commission for the then-current head of the family. As a result, Cappelletti believed that clues to what became of the painting must have been somewhere in the Mattei family archives. However, the current Marchesa was very vocal about her belief that everything worth discovering in the archives had already been discovered. Cappelletti accomplished something that others thought impossible -- she got the Marchesa to open the archives.
At this point, both Cappelletti and Harr show their ignorance of archiving. Cappelletti found out that the Marchesa was in the process of reorganizing the archive by the "creator," which is the person or organization that is the subject of the archive. Both Harr and Cappelletti seem to think that there is something wrong with the Marchesa reorganizing the family archives by the creator, rather than strictly chronologically. However, that is how professional archivists organize archives. This was, to say the least, kind of vexing. I would have preferred it if the Marchesa had been creating an index of the documents in the archive, or even better, if she hired a professional archivist to organize the archive, but the impulse to organize by creator is actually a good one.
Cappelletti and her research partner Laura Testa tracked the painting to Scotland, and then they lost the trail. They published two articles in which they mentioned their research. These articles were read by Benedetti, who worked as a restorer for the National Gallery in Dublin.
In the sitting room of a Jesuit rectory in Dublin, Benedetti found a painting that looked just like "The Taking of Christ." He knew from Cappelletti and Testa's articles that "The Taking of Christ" made it as far as Scotland. Could it have made it as far as Ireland?
It is no secret that the painting has been found (in fact, the painting is the illustration on the cover of the book), so there is no harm in me telling you that yes, the painting that Benedetti found was the original. After a harrowing experience relining the painting (relining is the process by which an old canvas is reinforced by gluing a new one to it), Benedetti successfully restored it and it is now the pride of the collection of the National Gallery, where it is on indefinite loan from the Jesuits.
I love research (that's why I went back to school in the early 2000s and got my master's degree in library science) and found this book fascinating. I also love art. My poor kid has been to more art museums than most children his age. So the research and views into parts of the art world that I had never seen before were fascinating to me. If you, too, find the worlds of art and libraries fascinating, I highly recommend this book. If the worlds of art and libraries are not your thing, I recommend you give it a pass.