Special to The PREVIEW
“The Lost Painting” by Jonathan Harr. Random House, 2005.
Jonathan Harr brings the world of art history to life in “The Lost Painting.” Harr takes the reader into the world of art history student Francesca Capelletti and the tedious and often mundane work of digging through archives to trace the provenance of a painting.
In 1989, Capelletti is working on a project with Giampaolo Correale, an art historian, researching paintings at the Capitoline Gallery in Rome. The project is an attempt to prove which of the two nearly identical paintings of St. John, attributed to Michealangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is the original: The one at the Capitoline Gallery or the one at the Dora Pamphila. During her research, Capelletti stumbles across information that nearly leads her to a lost Caravaggio painting known as “The Taking of Christ.”
Capelletti runs into a dead-end in Scotland and that is when the book shifts to tell the story of Sergio Benedetti an art restorer and amateur art historian, at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. Benedetti is asked to clean and restore some paintings hanging in the Jesuit, St. Ignacius Residence. Benedetti says that the large painting was dark, “it’s entire surface obscured by a film of dust, grease, and soot. The varnish had turned a yellowish brown, giving the flesh tones in the faces and hands a tobacco-like hue.” But even in the poor condition, Benedetti believes he has found a masterpiece.
With exquisite attention to detail, this non-fiction account of actual events between 1989 and 1993 reads with the pace of a novel. However, unlike fiction, this book has no evil antagonist. This is not “The DaVinci Code.”
“The Lost Painting” is creative nonfiction in the hands of a master. Harr won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction for his book “A Civil Action” and is a former staff writer at the New England Monthly and he has written for The New Yorker.
In telling the story of Capelletti, Benedetti and Sir Denis Mahon, one of the most respected Caravaggio scholars, Harr also gives the reader glimpses into the life of the seventeenth century Italian Baroque painter. Caravaggio was a genius, possibly mad, a drunken, violent man who happened to be a revolutionary painter.
Caravaggio’s paintings are lit with a strong, raking light that strikes across the composition, illuminating parts of it while plunging the rest into deep shadow. This dramatic illumination heightens the emotional tension, focuses the details and isolates the figures. Caravaggio insisted on clarity and concentration and firm vigorous drawing of the figures. But he used regular street models to represents religious figures and painted them realistically.
Harr has managed to write a book about Caravaggio using some of the master painter’s artistic techniques. Harr illuminates the life and work of Capelletti and Benedetti, focusing on the details of digging in archives, the types of cracks on a canvas, the new technology being used to determine the origins of a painting – infrared and x-ray technology and the medieval mixture Benedetti used to restretch the canvas and save the painting. Harr doesn’t focus on Caravaggio himself and there are several recent books written by scholars that explore in detail the painter’s life, but that was not the focus for Harr in “The Lost Painting.” Instead, Harr insists on firmly and vigorously drawing the figures of Capelletti, Benedetti and Mahon. And he succeeds.
Leanne Goebel is a freelance writer specializing in the arts. She is the editor of Arts Perspective magazine and a correspondent for The Four Corners Business Journal. To read more of her work, visit her blog at http://leannegoebel.blogspot.com.
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