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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recommended: Very good for enthusiastic museum goers. It also had a great Italian feel to it.
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.
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.
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.