Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Lost Painting

Photo: The Taking of Christ, from its Wikipedia page

Jonathan Harr's The Lost Painting is a surprisingly fascinating book that chronicles how Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ was "found" in Ireland in 1990. It tackles the story from two ends: research student and assistant Francesca Cappelletti, in Italy, and Sergio Benedetti, a restorer who actually found the physical work in a Jesuit church, in Ireland. Roughly two-thirds is spent watching Cappelletti research Caravaggio and his paintings, from the hugeness of Rome to the tiniest archive in a small mountainside town on the other side of Italy. Her investigation for this missing Caravaggio (there are many others still missing) takes her to Dublin, Ireland, where it deadends at an auction house that had gone out of business--and had not left any paperwork. The last third is spent with Benedetti, who nobody seems to like (including Harr, who sounds maybe a little too opinionated about his nonfiction subjects), and his realization while looking up at a huge painting in a small Jesuit building. He also restores the painting--almost ruining it in the process.

This is a good read for many reasons. Like good Bourne or Bond movies, the locales, buildings, peoples and environments all take center stage. Italy, a very old country, is juxtaposed nicely between present-day and the early 1600s. (The differences aren't as many as you think.) The book also goes into Caravaggio's short and violent life; he was a genius known for his fighting, who put his favorite prostitutes in his paintings. He was very popular and well-paid in his lifetime, even though Church leaders, his best customers, rejected the work they'd paid him for. (They didn't approve of famous Bible characters made earthy, nor of Mary, Jesus's mother, being portrayed by the famous, well-paid prostitutes of his day.)

You'll learn things about the Italy of Shakespeare's day (1590s-early 1600s) that you didn't know you wanted to know. You'll learn about how masterpieces are bought, sold and evaluated. You'll learn about how paintings are restored, and about how easy it is to ruin or to lose a masterpiece worth tens of millions of dollars. Most importantly, you'll learn a lot about Caravaggio, his paintings, his life, his Italy. Whether I make it sound like it or not, this is very fascinating stuff that will leave you wanting to know more.

At a time when seven Ty Cobb T206s, with the super-rare Ty Cobb backs, were found together in a crumpled paper bag about to be thrown away, you will believe that a $30 million Caravaggio was found in a small, neglected ancient church in Ireland. And this book makes you think: What other rare treasures are out there, waiting to be found? And why can't I be the one to find it?

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