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In pursuit of a treasure

The Lost Painting The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece Jonathan Harr Random House: 276 pp. $24.95

November 20, 2005|Jay Parini | Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, is the author, most recently, of "The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems."

IT makes sense that Caravaggio, a master of the Italian Baroque style, has emerged in recent decades as one of the most popular of all Italian painters. He was a sensationalist, in a way: His canvases moved far beyond the idealizations of previous painters in their depictions of religious scenes. They are nakedly realistic, often shocking, and they caused an outcry at the time. His renderings of David and Goliath are unforgettable, with their brutal depiction of the giant's lifeless, twisted face and agonized expression.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was colorful, to say the least. His life in the late 16th and early 17th centuries teemed with events that seem, even by today's standards, aggressively self-destructive. In Rome, he was involved in various scrapes and a fatal stabbing. He was pursued by the authorities (and the dead man's relatives) for years before someone caught up with him in Naples and slashed his face with a knife. Desperately ill, savagely wounded and monumentally depressed, he would continue to flee his pursuers. In the tumultuous years before his death in 1610, he painted several important works, including the one that is the subject of Jonathan Harr's absorbing new book, "The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece."

For his first book, "A Civil Action" (1995), Harr took on a more contemporary subject: the poisoning of wells in Woburn, Mass., with a chemical believed to have caused leukemia in local children. He proved to be a brilliant detective and a fine writer of nonfiction suspense. That bestselling book became a film starring John Travolta.

But what to do next? In Caravaggio's "The Taking of Christ," which disappeared a few centuries ago (although numerous copies survive), Harr has chosen well. He tells the rather unlikely story of the search for a missing masterwork. The vividly drawn protagonist is Francesca Cappellitti, a persistent art student who, in doing some research for a professor in Rome, stumbles on clues that lead her, over several years and many miles, to the painting. She is an engaging figure who became passionate about Italian art after first seeing the work of Caravaggio at age 11. "In time she came to know the names of the masters of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque in the way that schoolboys know the names and statistics of professional soccer players," Harr writes.

Cappellitti and a friend and fellow art student, Laura Testa, go to a village on the Adriatic called Recanati to visit an ancient palazzo owned by descendants of Ciriaco Mattei, a wealthy nobleman who commissioned paintings by Caravaggio and many others. An elderly marchesa presides over the crumbling house and the archive of her prominent ancestors; Harr describes her with meticulous care, summoning a cigarette-smoking crone whose "face was deeply lined" and whose lipstick, "thickly and inexpertly applied, had smudged at the corners of her mouth and the margins of her narrow lips." She is a character to rival Dickens' Miss Havisham.

Harr's evocation of the archive, with its dusty inventories from the early 17th century, is priceless. The young women work with the white-gloved marchesa at their elbows endlessly asking them what exactly they are seeking. With astonishing speed, they find an alluring reference to a painting by Caravaggio; Cappellitti shrieks in delight. Mattei had owned several of his paintings, it turned out, and one inventory entry listed the long-lost "The Taking of Christ." Having seen photographs of the many copies of the painting and read articles by Caravaggio scholar Roberto Longhi, who was obsessed with finding the original, they grasp at once the potential of their discovery.

The chase is on. We meet various eccentric scholars, although not Longhi, who has died. My favorite is the fussy Sir Denis Mahon, who lives in London but haunts conferences that have anything to do with Caravaggio. He speaks in a high thin voice, dresses elegantly and bestows his blessings on Cappellitti, vowing to help her. She learns that he "latches on to young scholars. He likes to have them in tow." As it happens, he is tremendously welcoming when Cappellitti moves to London, still in pursuit of the painting, which she believes made its way to Scotland at one point, having been purchased in 1802 by the wealthy aristocrat William Hamilton Nisbet as the work of another painter.

A further, crucial thread of the narrative comes into view about midway through the book, when we meet the middle-aged Sergio Benedetti. A sour and disappointed man, he had hoped to be an art historian but instead became a run-of-the-mill restorer of old paintings, working in Dublin. It is Benedetti who discovers the painting, in Dublin, in a most unlikely setting: a house of Jesuits. Much of the subsequent drama deals with Benedetti's efforts to establish the painting's provenance -- a crucial step if he is to prove it is the lost Caravaggio; he needs Cappellitti's help to manage this.

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