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In search of 'The Lost Painting'

Jonathan Harr follows the trail to a masterpiece

By Todd Leopold

Taking of Christ
The original of Caravaggio's "The Taking of Christ" was believed lost for centuries.


Jonathan Harr

(CNN) -- Jonathan Harr needed money.

It was 1994. His book, "A Civil Action," wasn't out yet, and the author agreed to do a story for The New York Times Magazine about a long-lost Caravaggio painting that had recently turned up in a Jesuit residence in Ireland.

Harr found the story refreshing.

"I thought it would make a good short book after the long slog of 'A Civil Action,' " he says, chatting on a cell phone while walking to a meeting in Manhattan. That book was "an eight-year black hole in my life," he recalls, and he was looking for a change.

But even after the magazine story appeared, nobody was interested, he says.

Fast-forward seven years. "A Civil Action," an engrossing work about a lawsuit brought by some Massachusetts residents against a chemical company, became a best-seller, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and turned into a John Travolta movie. And Harr, after trying and discarding some follow-up ideas -- "they turned to dust in my hands" -- was invited to study at the American Academy in Rome, an independent research center.

He had to have a topic, he says, so he took his old notes about the Caravaggio work, "The Taking of Christ." The research that ensued turned into his latest work, "The Lost Painting" (Random House).

The book tells two stories that eventually intertwine: the story of the search for and discovery of "The Taking of Christ"; and the story of Caravaggio, a bold artist and brawler whose life -- and afterlife -- was full of extremes.

There were some problems for Harr, of course. He needed to learn art history. And, to talk with some of his sources, he needed to learn Italian.

Indeed, that would prove to be an early stumbling block. At an interview with one of the students who helped prove the work still existed, Harr was told a friend would come to translate. The friend showed up -- accompanied by a giant dictionary.

"I didn't get a lot," says Harr.

'I was bowled over'

What Harr did get -- right away -- was a sense of the passion Caravaggio aficionados have for the artist, who lived in the late-16th and early-17th centuries. There's even a name for it: the Caravaggio disease.

Harr himself has been afflicted.

"I'd seen a Caravaggio show in 1985. I was bowled over," he says. "He was so dramatic. And his biography -- on the one hand he was a guy who revolutionized painting, and on the other he was a complete rogue."

Born Michelangelo Merisi in the Italian town of Caravaggio, the painter was renowned in his time for his startling use of light and shadow; his figures, particularly in his biblical works, are starkly illuminated, their faces a cauldron of emotion.

Caravaggio himself was an emotional man, given to rages and eccentric behavior, and he managed to exasperate patrons even as demand for his work rose. He lived a messy life, behind on rent and dressed in rags, disappearing unexpectedly, sometimes after a brawl.

In 1607, during a confrontation against a rival clan, Caravaggio killed a man and fled from Rome, where he had been living. He traveled throughout Italy, painting "without the finish of the Roman days, but with greater drama and a stark intensity," Harr writes. And violence, too: In one late painting, "David with the Head of Goliath," he painted his own face on the Philistine's bloody, severed head.

He attempted to return to Rome in 1610, hoping for a pardon from the pope, but died of a fever after being put off a ship. He was 39.

Over the centuries, much of Caravaggio's work was lost, and his reputation declined to such extent that, by the early 20th century, his work could be had for a relative pittance. Today, there are fewer than 100 Caravaggio paintings in existence, but the view has changed: a single Caravaggio, should one go on the market, could demand tens of millions of dollars.

The 'texture' of the story


Which was one reason the students, Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa, were so excited when they believed they'd found proof of "The Taking of Christ's" existence while tracing its provenance.

Around the same time, the Dublin home of some Jesuit priests had sent a painting over to the Irish National Gallery for restoration. Upon beginning the cleaning process, the restorer, Sergio Benedetti, realized he might be looking at a lost Caravaggio. Eventually, the principals find that "The Taking of Christ," which had hung for decades in a quiet Dublin house, was indeed a Caravaggio work -- its winding ownership trail traced by the Italian students and confirmed by Benedetti and some Caravaggio experts.

To recreate this tale, Harr interviewed his sources over and over again, obtaining the tiniest details, from the poorly powered car Cappelletti and Testa drove over the Apennines to the procedures Benedetti used to clean "The Taking of Christ."

"My task was to recreate the texture as best I could," says Harr. In one respect, he adds, "The Lost Painting" was easier than "A Civil Action": "I knew how it would turn out."

Not that it was easy to deal with everybody. The world of art scholarship can be secretive and tight-lipped, with people wanting to reveal as little as they can get away with. Indeed, Cappelletti and Testa's professor refused to speak to them after they mentioned their theories to another expert; he has cut them off to this day.

"They are outwardly polite ... but [they] protect their turf," says Harr of the academics.

"The Lost Painting" checks in at a brisk 262 pages, excepting notes and acknowledgments. Harr says he thought about other directions he could have taken the book -- "I thought about the sweep of history, the rise and fall of great families ... [and] the history of art history" -- but decided to keep the book as streamlined as possible. Other information, he says, "came across as too didactic."

Still, he has no regrets: about the time invested in interviews, in sampling Italian, in learning art history.

"I found it quite fascinating," he says.

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