An Italian village on a hilltop near the Adriatic coast, a decaying palazzo facing the sea, and in the basement, cobwebbed and dusty, lit by a single bulb, an archive unknown to scholars. Here, a young graduate student from Rome, Francesca Cappelletti, makes a discovery that inspires a search for a work of art of incalculable value, a painting lost for almost two centuries.
The artist was Caravaggio, a master of the Italian Baroque. He was a genius, a revolutionary painter, and a man beset by personal demons. Four hundred years ago, he drank and brawled in the taverns and streets of Rome, moving from one rooming house to another, constantly in and out of jail, all the while painting works of transcendent emotional and visual power. He rose from obscurity to fame and wealth, but success didn’t alter his violent temperament. His rage finally led him to commit murder, forcing him to flee Rome a hunted man. He died young, alone, and under strange circumstances.
Caravaggio scholars estimate that between sixty and eighty of his works are in existence today. Many others–no one knows the precise number–have been lost to time. Somewhere, surely, a masterpiece lies forgotten in a storeroom, or in a small parish church, or hanging above a fireplace, mistaken for a mere copy.
Given the relative obscurity of 16th-century the Italian baroque master and all-around creative bad boy Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who after a flare of fame remained relatively unknown from his death until the 1950s, the 1992 discovery of the artist’s missing painting The Taking of Christ understandably stirred up a frenzy in academic circles. Harr’s skillful and long-awaited follow-up to 1997’s A Civil Action provides a finely detailed account of the fuss. While contoured brush strokes and pentimenti repaints have little to do with the toxic waters and legalese Harr dissected in his debut, the author writes comfortably about complex artistic processes and enlivens the potentially tedious details of artistic restoration with his lively and articulate prose. Broken into short, succinct chapters, the narrative unfolds at a brisk pace, skipping quickly from the perspective of 91-year-old Caravaggio scholar Sir Denis Mahon to that of young, enterprising Francesca Cappelletti, a graduate student at the University of Rome researching the disappearance of The Taking of Christ. The mystery ends with Sergio Benedetti, a restorer at the National Gallery of Ireland, who ultimately discovers the lost, grime-covered masterpiece in a house owned by Jesuit priests. But while adept at coordinating dates and analyzing hairline fractures in aged paint, Harr often seems overly concerned with the step-by-step process of tracking down The Taking of the Christ, as if the specific artist who created it were irrelevant. Granted, Harr is not an art historian, but his lack of artistic analysis of Caravaggio’s paintings may frustrate readers who wish to know more about the naturalistic Italian’s works.(Nov. 1) ~ Publisher Weekly
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