The Lost Painting

by Jonathan Harr

Hardcover, 2005




New York : Random House, 2005.


A decaying palazzo on a hilltop near the Adriatic coast, and in the basement, cobwebbed and dusty, an archive unknown to scholars. Here, a young graduate student from Rome makes a discovery that inspires a search for a painting lost for almost two centuries. The artist was Caravaggio, a revolutionary painter beset by personal demons. Four hundred years ago, he drank and brawled in the taverns and streets of Rome, in and out of jail, all the while painting transcendent works. He rose from obscurity to fame and wealth, but success didn't alter his violent temperament. 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. This quest is a synthesis of history and detective story.--From publisher description.… (more)

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LibraryThing member fyrefly98
Summary: While researching the history of another of Caravaggio's paintings, graduate students Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa uncover information on the commission and eventual sale of another work, The Taking of Christ, which had been lost since the 1600s, although numerous copies existed. Following the trail of records leads Francesca to an auction house in Edinburgh in the 1920s, where the painting was catalogued, but no records exist of if or to whom it was sold. Meanwhile, Sergio Benedetti, an art restoration expert at the National Gallery of Ireland, discovered a painting hanging in the Dublin residence of the Jesuits, that he believed may be the lost Caravaggio.

Review: This book was pretty far afield for me, but it did an excellent job of catering to exactly what I wanted. I don't read much non-fiction in general, and I know next to nothing about art or theory or painting techniques, but I do find art history fascinating - stories of the objects themselves and how and why they were created, owned, and used. To quote from the closing of the book, "every painting has its own vicissitudes," and that individual history is what interests me. This book delivered admirably on that score, with copious details about the history of The Taking of Christ interwoven with the stories of how that information was ferreted out of archives and libraries, details about the life of Caravaggio, some fascinating information on the process of art restoration, and a glimpse into the lives of people who have caught "the Caravaggio disease". The style, as others have noted, is journalistic, with short, punchy, to-the-point sentences that can come off as rather abrupt to someone who reads primarily fiction, but I didn't think it detracted from the story. You're not going to be happy if you go into this expecting something like The DaVinci Code - it's narrative non-fiction, but it's not really a mystery or a thrill-a-minute story. I think people who enjoyed books like Girl With a Pearl Earring - and who generally enjoy the stories behind the art more than the art itself - would enjoy this one as well.

Recommendation: An interesting and compelling piece of non-fiction ideal for a reader who's interested in but not particularly knowledgeable about art and art history.
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LibraryThing member paghababian
This is a truly fascinating story about the discovery of a once-lost masterpiece by Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ. More than that, the book is about how the discipline of art history works - how research and scholarship and restoration go hand in hand and how important continued scholarship can be. Harr's writing is very quick-paced and easy to read, making a story that could be dense with names and dates and facts move along easily.

As an archivist- and art librarian-in-training, I found this book tremendously helpful. I had never really understood why so many art libraries devote precious space to auction catalogs, but this story proved their usefulness to me. I will definitely be suggesting it to my friends in my program.

However, for a book about art, there was a distinct lack of illustrations. A small photo of The Taking of Christ on the back cover helped in understanding composition and, to a degree, color and light, but it was too dark and too small to be truly helpful. The book also could have used an appendix that concisely traced the provenance of the painting or maps showing where the painting had gone in its travels.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
The Lost Painting referred to in the title is Caravaggio's Taking of Christ, one of three Caravaggio paintings commissioned by wealthy Roman Ciriaco Mattei. The painting wasn't lost in the sense of having been misplaced. Although it never left the possession of the Mattei family during its first 200 years, by the time it was sold in 1802, its identity as a Caravaggio had been lost to the passage of time and memories that weren't passed on to subsequent generations. Harr tells the story of the painting's rediscovery in the late 1990s through the research of two Italian students of art history and the educated eye of an art restorer.

I particularly enjoyed the first half of the book describing the research of Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa, two graduate students in art history. Because of her friendship with a Mattei relative, Francesca was able to gain access to the Mattei family archives, where the women examined Ciriaco Mattei's account books and the periodic inventories of the family's possessions over the centuries. They also used government archives and conducted a thorough literature search, examining exhibition and auction catalogs and following footnote trails from the journal literature. I have used the same kinds of documents for family history research, and the thrill I felt when Francesca and Laura made their discoveries was similar to the thrill of discovering a link to another generation on my family tree.

The audio recording included a bonus interview with the author, in which the author revealed that he learned Italian in order to conduct the interviews that form the basis for the book. Because the book is so reliant on the personal stories of the art experts and researchers involved in the rediscovery of the painting, Harr didn't want to conduct his interviews through an interpreter. The time he spent in language study was well spent. Harr's account is as thorough as an eye witness's. Enthusiastically recommended for anyone with an interest in art history or archival research.
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LibraryThing member riofriotex
The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr, is nonfiction about the search for the long-lost, supposedly "original" The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio.  It was particularly interesting to read about the research done by art history graduate students in various libraries and archives, as well as the meticulous work of art restorers.  Harr writes in a journalistic style, but lists numerous sources in his four-plus page bibliography, and took the trouble to learn Italian so he could conduct most of his research interviews in Rome in that language.… (more)
LibraryThing member MusicMom41
I became interested in this book when it was discussed on one of the threads on LT. I requested it from my library system and when it came I received the audio version rather than the print version. I don’t know if I accidentally requested the wrong version or if they made the mistake but it was serendipitous because hubby and I were taking a mini vacation and we both listened to it on the trip. It was unabridged and well read by Campbell Scott and thoroughly enjoyable—even riveting.

This is the fascinating story of the finding of the lost painting “The Taking of Christ” by the revolutionary painter Caravagio, a master of the Italian Baroque. Although the story is true it reads like an exciting novel and has a large cast of characters. Along the way we meet two graduate students who are trying to track down what happened to the painting, an important Caravagio expert from London who is responsible for authenticating (or not) many of Carvagio’s existing paintings including two copies of “The Taking of Christ”, and many others involved in the art world. We learn much about tracking the provenance of a painting, authenticating paintings, restoring paintings, art seminars and exhibitions, and about Caravagio, his life and his works. Highly recommended—especially if you are interested in art and art museums. 4 stars.
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LibraryThing member mstrust
When a wealthy Roman funds the research for several masterpieces, including Caravaggio's lost paintings, two of the researchers, university students, follow any lead they can find. One travels throughout Scotland looking for connections to the last known owner, and they search out the descendant to the first owner from 400 years ago, pulling strings to get a chance at the family archives. Meanwhile in Dublin, an Italian art restorer is sent by the National Gallery of Ireland to retrieve a dirty, old painting that has hung in a Jesuit home for years in desperate need of cleaning, and finds something very exciting.

Lots of mystery, dead-ends, art experts and jockeying for advanced information, and some info about how great works of art are preserved. It seems strange that with all the talk about Caravaggio's works, especially The Taking of Christ, that the only image is a little one on the back cover.
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LibraryThing member kambrogi
This much-acclaimed book is a narrative nonfiction journey through the search for Caravaggio’s lost Baroque masterpiece: The Taking of Christ. Harr skillfully reveals the tale through the experiences of several real-life participants: the art critic, the graduate-student researchers and the restorer. Harr, who has definitely done his homework here, provides background on the artist and the lost painting, but weaves that in and out of the ongoing search, so that the story’s tension is never lost. He maintains just enough distance for journalistic objectivity, while using his interviews with the characters to layer in personal feelings and experiences, ultimately providing all the excitement of a contemporary art mystery. Although this work does not have the depth (or length) of one of Erik Larssen’s better narrative nonfiction works (Isaac’s Storm, The Devil in the White City), many readers will find it a thoroughly fascinating read. I did.… (more)
LibraryThing member pickoftheliterate
This was a recommendation from the always-reliable Ed Bernard, who often points me toward non-fiction treasures that I otherwise would overlook. This one is the tale of the events leading to the discovery of a long-lost painting by Caravaggio. We follow art history grad students as they wade through villas and tangle with egotistical art historians in attempting to discover the fate of The Taking of the Christ.

Along the way, we glean glimpses of the tumultuous life of 16th-century Baroque painter Caravaggio, left to infer what we can on his life based on police reports and other tantalizing details.

With Harr’s unpretentious style, we move quickly through the myriad characters of the art world on the road to perhaps finding the masterpiece, somewhere. This is a good book even for those who aren’t art aficionados, as Harr never pretends to be an expert. His fascination is with the way the protagonists sift through centuries of information in search of elusive masterpieces.
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LibraryThing member omphalos02
Exceptional non-fiction written with verve regarding the rediscovery of a lost Carravaggio painting. Fascinating story to with great style.
LibraryThing member shihtzu
Great non-fiction. Caravaggio was known as a thug and thought to be a murderer in his own time. The book highlights some parts of Caravaggio's amazing life of artistic success, troubles, betrayals - at the same time that it chronicles the efforts of a young Roman art history student in the 1990s to find the lost Caravaggio masterpiece of the betrayal of Christ by Judas.… (more)
LibraryThing member nicole_a_davis
This was an interesting story, but I wish I hadn't paid full hardcover price for it. It would have been much better condensed down to a long magazine article (as it was originally supposed to be). Harr's style is too journalistic, I found, to do well in a whole book.
LibraryThing member eembooks
This book was selected as one of the 2006 best books by the NYT and I love Caravaggio paintings thought I would be entralled with book. It was somewhat of a disappointment.
LibraryThing member gwendolyndawson
Entertaining and suspenseful book about the discovery of a "lost" Caravaggio painting. Fast-paced and well-written.
LibraryThing member delphica
(#48 in the 2006 book challenge)

Hey, that's two books I've read about quests in a month! Good grief. This is a journalistic account of the (relatively recent) discovery of a Caravaggio painting that had been lost nearly since it was first created. It was all nice and artsy and all that, and I think it gave a fairly decent and not too dreadfully dull explanation about provenance and restoration techniques and such. There was one line, sadly toward the beginning, that absolutely set me off. I've debated whether or not to go into it, and decided my blood pressure probably doesn't need it, but I believe it's the sort of thing where the author felt it safe to synopsize a little tangent as a small aside, but the way he edited it down for size completely missed the point, but you wouldn't know what the point was anyway unless you have been enrolled in an art history program. It's probably safe to say that it isn't impacting too many people.

Grade: B+
Recommended: Very good for enthusiastic museum goers. It also had a great Italian feel to it.
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LibraryThing member babydraco
I usually rate my books high, because I simply can't afford to buy books I'm not reasonably sure I'll like.

But this is one of the few exceptions.

It's very boring- for a mystery, there doesn't seem to be an actual villain. It's a bit like "The Da Vinci Code" with everything exciting taken out. The fun of stories about art thefts and art controversies is not usually all about an accurate and realistic portrayal of actual academic methods of searching/validating art.

Because that's boring.

He doesn't even give the characters interesting personal lives. I disliked his heroine too.
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LibraryThing member ddelmoni
I was sorry that this book ended so quickly. A wonderful real life mystery told by an excellent writer.
LibraryThing member BALE
The Lost Painting is a matter-of-fact presentation outlining the finding of Caravaggio's missing painting, "The Taking of Christ"; a painting that could not be located after its sale at auction in 1921. The book lacked depth and was a bit choppy. The author could have added more details concerning Caravaggio's life and work, the supplies he used (especially his paints), his process and restoration specifics. He touches upon all, but stops short, leaving the reader looking for more. Such particulars would not have taken away from this book; it would have made it more complete.… (more)
LibraryThing member bibliolevin
The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr is an engrossing story. The characters pull the reader along, and you become invested in the search for the missing Caravaggio. The book is easy to read, and also serves as a reminder that art can endure through generations, through social upheaval and stressful times.
It is a fascinating look at the world of the art historian, the restorer, and those who truly appreciate the genius of a master artist. Jonathan Harr deftly avoids the often dry tone of many non-fiction writers, creating instead an interesting novel which just happens to be true.… (more)
LibraryThing member shawnd
Rule of Four meets The Coffee Trader all based on the art world. Story about a man who happens on a painting that he believes to be important, and the process by which other people begin to believe the same thing. Writing is not stellar, but the story concept is good and you don't need to be an art lover or knowledgeable at all. I think this is based on a true story; the characters seem true to life. Not a slow read and perfect for an airplane.… (more)
LibraryThing member silverbow
Two Italian graduate students find a clue in a dusty archive that puts them on the trail of a masterpiece by Caravaggio that has been lost to the world for 200 years. Along the way the reader learns about the restoration of priceless paintings and about the colorful life and violent end of the famous painter. The book is as much a page-turner as the DaVinci Code, but it is all true! People who liked fiction thrillers like The Club Dumas by Perez-Reverte, Shadow of the Wind by Ruiz-Zafon, and Possession by A.S. Byatt will probably enjoy this book too.… (more)
LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
The Lost Painting is a fast-paced romp through Rome, Dublin, London and Edinburgh in the search of a lost painting by Caravaggio. The artist and art history are short-changed, but if you are interested in the competitive world of art historians, restorers and academics, this is an excellent peek at how reputations are made and lost.

Caravaggio was a paranoid nutbag who was forced to flee Rome when he killed a guy. Being a fugitive changed his personality only for the worse, but the guy could paint. Most of his paintings have been lost or destroyed over time and so the discovery of a new Caravaggio was enough to send the art world into a tizzy. This book had a limited scope, which allowed Harr to write a tightly plotted and exciting book about a fairly unexplosive topic.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
I read the author's A Civil Action on Mar 8, 1998, and liked it very much--not too surprising since I have a natural affinity for legal subjects and trials. But I found this book about the search for a lost painting by Caravaggio just as attention-holding as I did Harr's prior work. The story is expertly told, guaranteeing that one's interest will be maintained all the way through the book. I do not know how the story could be better presented. One stands in amazement at the fascinating detail Harr elucidates in regard to art history research and art restoration--at least for me who knows nothing about either subject.… (more)
LibraryThing member marshapetry
Excellent book, excellent audiobook narrator. Although a major theme is the finding of one painting, as the reader is led through the search other stories are woven in to the mix, give a great overview of the theft that occurs in the art world. I highly recommend this book. Super easy listen, good book to "take you away" as you're driving I (don't go too far away.!!)… (more)
LibraryThing member VivienneR
This is a fascinating account of the search for a lost painting of Caravaggio that takes the story from Italy to Ireland. Harr's story is as much about the people involved as the quest. Recommended for anyone interested in the history of art and artists, especially the detective work required for such research. This audiobook was a lucky find picked up at the library.… (more)
LibraryThing member Romonko
This was a very surprising non-fiction book. It read more like a historical mystery novel than a non-fiction true story about the art and the life of Michelangelo Caravaggio, a 16 century Renaissance painter. Caravaggio had a very short and tumultuous life, but he is famous for his bright and colourful paintings, and for the way he displayed light in his work. He often used self-portraits in his paintings. His paintings are hanging in galleries all over the world, but unfortunately a lot of them have been lost. This book is a book about the treasure hunt involved with trying to find one of his lost paintings. The book starts out with a young Italian graduate student discovering a record of one of his paintings that had been lost for almost two centuries. She discovers the origin of the painting in a dusty old family archive, and she is determined to try to trace where this painting is now. She manages to trace it all the way to Scotland, but then the trail is lost, until a very discerning art restorer discovers what he thinks might be "The Taking of the Christ" in a small Irish Jesuit mission. I am a newbie in the world of art and art restoration, so therefore this whole book was a revelation to me. Johnathan Harr made the story so captivating and so rife with tension and discovery that it held my interest throughout. Caravaggio and his beautiful paintings came alive for me as I read. This is why I adore non-fiction. When you find a book written with such skill and about such a captivating subject, it is a exciting and a revelation. A bygone era came alive for me, and I've been introduced to a whole new world.… (more)


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