Jonathan Harr's previous book, the riveting non-fiction A Civil Action, converted a complicated suit over water contamination into a first-rate legal thriller, taking its place alongside perennial bestsellers by Scott Turow and John Grisham and inspiring the requisite movie adaptation. Harr's impressive follow-up, The Lost Painting, about the discovery of Caravaggio's 1602 "The Taking Of Christ," stirs just as much drama out of material that would seem to resist it. Unless some brilliant screenwriter can find a way to tease excitement out of restorers swabbing old paintings for weeks on end, or art historians plumbing through musty archives for sales receipts, Hollywood will most likely take a pass. And yet the book is a page-turner, thanks largely to Harr's understanding of the high stakes involved and his gift for infusing urgency into the fastidious labors of professionals.
Like many great discoveries both in and out of the art world, this one happened mostly by accident, though it should be noted that only impassioned Caravaggio scholars could have recognized their good fortune. The trail began with Francesca Cappelletti, a 24-year-old University Of Rome graduate student who was involved in a project to solidify the origins of a Caravaggio work on St. John. As others scanned two paintings (presumably the original and the copy) with technological gizmos, Cappelletti and her partner followed the paper trail to a largely untapped family archive, where they found a sales record for "The Taking Of Christ," a masterpiece that had been missing for 200 years. Sold for a pittance, the painting was misattributed to an obscure Danish artist and presumed lost somewhere in Great Britain. Enter Sergio Benedetti, a restorer for the National Gallery in Ireland, who stumbled upon the piece when a Jesuit group unknowingly submitted it to him for cleaning.
Throughout the book, Harr considers the circumstances that allow masterpieces like Caravaggio's to fall out of favor in one era, only to be coveted in the next: It's probably fair to speculate that "The Taking Of Christ" remained lost for so many years in part because art mavens, who had rejected Caravaggio's expressive realism in favor of other trends, didn't care to find it. The Lost Painting revels in such hiccups in history, as well as the politics and passion of art scholarship, and the delicate work of preserving a 400-year-old painting for centuries to come.