The Lost Painting: The Quest For a Caravaggio Masterpiece

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr. Random House, 2005; $24.95; 250 pages.


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, and a revolutionary painter. He was also a heavy drinker, who, 400 years ago, 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 60 and 80 of his works are in existence today. Many others -- no one knows the 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 copy.

Jonathan Harr embarks on a journey to discover the long-lost painting known as The Taking of Christ. After Francesca Cappelletti stumbles across a clue in a dusty archive, she tracks the painting across a continent and hundreds of years of history. But it is not until she meets Sergio Benedetti, an art restorer working in Ireland, that she assembles all the pieces of the puzzle.


From Publishers Weekly: Harr 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 moves at a brisk pace.

From Booklist: Harr, a consummate storyteller...traces the...journey of The Taking of Christ in an effortlessly educating and marvelously entertaining mix of art history and scholarly sleuthing.... Harr...incisively recounts Caravaggio's wild and tragic life and offers evocative testimony to the resonance of his daring and magnificent work.


Jonathan Harr lives and works in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he has taught nonfiction writing at Smith College. He is a former staff writer at New England Monthly and has written for the New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. Harr spent nine years researching and writing A Civil Action, which was published in 1995, subsequently nominated for a National Book Award, and awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award.


On the day that we talked, Mr. Harr was in Italy and I was at home in California. "Actually," Mr. Harr said, "I'm in Verugia, a beautiful hill town in Umbria. I love Rome, but it's big and it's dirty and it's a city -- there's lots of traffic. So I'm taking a rest before I come back to the U.S. I have in front of me a garden that must be -- God, it must be ten acres. It overlooks the entire valley of Sculeto. This is a tiny house that I've rented very cheaply. I have grape vines hanging here. It's quite gorgeous." Mr. Harr told me that he was born in 1948 in Blake, Wisconsin. He was one of seven, some of whom were half-brothers and sisters.

"My father," Mr. Harr said, "was in the diplomatic corps. I had a very itinerant life. When I was three, we went to Israel for three years. My father came back to Chicago and he got a master's degree in political science. Then he went to Berkeley for a Ph.D. in political science and then went back to Washington, D.C., and to France and then Germany. When I was 12, we were living in Berkeley."

Mr. Harr was a bookish child. "When I was in first grade we used to get prizes for reading books. You made chains out of colored pieces of paper. You read a book and made a report on it, and you'd be given another ring of the chain.

"In my first grade class I was the best for a while. The first book I remember being in love with was a children's book that won The Newbery. It was about the Civil War and it was called Rifles for Watie. It was essentially a love story and affected me greatly. I was ten years old. I read The Hardy Boys, but the first book that I really got interested in was a large, complete volume of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes that my father had. I still have that volume. I read it when I was about 11.

"On my twelfth birthday, my father gave me 12 books. Among them were, incredible books: 1984, The Count of Monte Cristo, Beau Geste, Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, a very political book which I didn't understand from a political standpoint."

Mr. Harr attended William and Mary in Virginia. "We were living at the time in Washington, D.C. My father was with the State Department. I dropped out of William and Mary after two years.

"I became a Vista volunteer in West Virginia. The Vietnam War was going on, and I hated William and Mary. I wasn't ready to be a student. After my Vista year was up, I stayed in West Virginia and went to Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, for one year. I never finished. I dropped out for good."

"My first job was with a small group of newspapers, which still exists. I ended up in New Haven, Connecticut. I worked for The New Haven Register , very briefly, the traditional daily newspaper, which was an awful paper. There was an alternative weekly given away free called The Advocate . I wrote for them for several years. It was my training ground. Alternative papers can be wonderful workplaces. You can write long pieces. They don't have to be the classic, daily paper pieces."

Did Mr. Harr study writing?

"I never took a single class in writing in my life. You learn by doing and by reading."

"And by needing money."

Mr. Harr agreed, "That's true."

Mr. Harr's mother lives, now, in San Diego. He has visited the city several times. What is Mr. Harr doing now?

"I'm in the midst of writing just to occupy time. To have fun with short stories. I wish I could interview people, but I take these from the newspapers; they usually involve some sort of tragedy. Then I start inventing."

"Were you surprised that your first book did so well?"

"Shocked. Absolutely shocked. I finished the book, and before I finished the book I needed money, and I wrote a story for The New York Times Magazine because they offered me $10,000. It came out before I'd finished the book. It took me almost eight years to finish the book. Contractually I was supposed to finish within two years, which was utterly preposterous.

"I was constantly delayed. It didn't seem to make any difference if I took some time off to make money. By then I'd used the entire advance for the book. I needed money. I'm married. My wife was a schoolteacher and didn't make a lot of money.

"She was teaching in the Smith laboratory school, so she was teaching children, and she was teaching Smith students who wanted to become art teachers. She was working half-time, and she was getting paid at the level, not of the professorial staff, but at the level of regular teaching staff. So it was not much money."

"You must have been thrilled to no longer worry about whether you could pay the light bill."

"It was incredible. I did this story for The New York Times Magazine and then the editor of the Times left for The New Yorker and asked me to write a story for them, which I did -- a story that I'd suggested. I was working on it, having finished A Civil Action and not expecting that it would do very well. I had never had any success in explaining it to people. They'd ask me what the book was about and nobody got it.

"Eyes would glaze over and they'd turn to another subject when I started talking about it. I didn't like talking about it anyway. It was a long book about a lawsuit that lasted almost a decade and involved dead children and toxic waste. Now, who could reasonably expect that is going to be a commercial success? I didn't."

"No, I would not have. But then I think you should write what you want to write and let what happens happen."

"I think that's true, but as you said a moment ago, money can be a great incentive. I never did a calculation with A Civil Action. I did more of a calculation with this book."

"Caravaggio," I said, "reminds me of Francis Bacon."

Mr. Harr was not disinclined to compare the two painters. "Francis Bacon created lots of outrage with his paintings. I mean they were new and they were startling and they were twisted. I think Caravaggio is that. Bacon threw away much of his early work and was hugely self-critical, which I don't think Caravaggio necessarily was."

"How did you happen to become interested in painting?"

"I don't know that I am. I'm not an art historian. I never studied art history until I began this. Now I'm quite fascinated by it. It's sort of like...I wasn't a lawyer and I wrote A Civil Action. Stories in the law are fascinating. That's one of the great pleasures of being a writer. Go where you want to go."

"When you interview people you can ask almost anything."

"That's true. Within reason. Because you want to draw them out. So you have to be careful not to offend them at the beginning by asking certain questions. There's a certain art to getting the material that you want."

"When I started reading The Lost Painting, I thought it was a novel. I felt as if I'd dropped into a dream."

"That's wonderful. That was my intention, essentially."

"Did you spend a lot of time with Francesca and Laura?"

"With Francesca, endless. I have 44 printed pages typed up into my computer of interviews with her. We became friends. I'd see her for coffee. I always had questions for her, and she was always responsive."

Francesca is portrayed as a careless driver. "I hope," I said, "you didn't drive with her."

"No, I didn't. I never drove with her. I don't drive in Italy. I rely on decent drivers."

"Did you show the book's principals the text?"

"Yes. Francesca liked it. She thought it was pretty good. But it's always a difficult thing for a nonfiction writer to do, to give the book to the character. She had small things she wanted me to change -- mostly her comments or thoughts about other people. I did make a few of these changes."

A reader learns in The Lost Painting much about painting restoration. I complimented Mr. Harr on the interest of this information.

"I'm glad you liked it. I was afraid that I'd gone on too long. You can bore readers. I was afraid that there was too much technical stuff. So I tried to abbreviate that. I tried to write cleanly. But that can become ba bump, ba bump, repetitive -- 'He did this and then did that. And then he did that.'"

The life story of Caravaggio is neatly folded into the story of the search for the lost painting. About that "folding-in," Mr. Harr said, "That was another sort of technical challenge. I wanted to maintain the two narratives: the large one, or the contemporary narrative, and the small one of Caravaggio and his time and history."

Mr. Harr explained that the creation of a life story of someone like Caravaggio, who lived 400 years ago, focused him intently on the painter. "I wanted to sit with him for half an hour and ask him questions. There are things that we will never know. If somebody had interviewed him for 30 minutes, think what we might know."

"So many people," I proposed, "think that because, for instance, a poem is beautiful that the poet leads a beautiful life, and is kind to his wife and good to his children. And often the fact is he's just a bombastic bastard. Who's enormously talented. That's somewhat the story of Caravaggio, isn't it?"

"Right. He was a son of a bitch, but he sure could paint. He was the first modern painter. Caravaggio painted poor people, ragged clothes and dirty feet. He knew this part of life. The question is whether he intended it to be a social commentary. Nobody can answer that; all you can do is make suppositions by looking at the painting. We don't have direct information."

"Who is your editor?"

"Bob Loomis, Random House. Without him and Tracy Kidder, I would be a lost soul. Bob is now 76 or 77 years old. I hope he doesn't retire any time soon. I don't know what I'd do without him. When I send him something and he doesn't like it, he tells me. When I send him something and he does like it, he tells me. I have a harder time believing that he likes things than that he doesn't like things. But I've learned to trust him."

"I can work only without ever showing anything to anyone until it's all done."

"That's also my preference. I couldn't do it in this case because I was also late with this book. Bob Loomis insisted on seeing some of it. When I know there are things that I want to make better, or mistakes, I want to correct them. I don't want somebody else to impose their method of operation. So I prefer to correct and make better the things that I want to make better, and then give the book. Then if there are other things that don't work and I was oblivious to it, I'm happy to hear about them."

Does Mr. Harr speak Italian?

"I didn't when I arrived in 2000. I had to learn Italian to interview. That took a while. I'm still not perfect at it. But that was one of the other great pleasures -- I decided to do this book, I had to interview these people, I had to learn Italian to do it, and it was fun."

"Are you shy?"

"Yes, I am. But by the time you've reached my age you have to face who you are. I don't know if that's a change one could make. I think there are certain things you're given; the color of eyes that you have and essentially the fundamental personal attributes."

"I bet you're a hard worker."

"I'm pretty diligent when I set myself to it. But the other problem is, especially with writing, you can never know if you've done it right. It's not like answering questions or doing a crossword puzzle, which I like to do. I'm pretty good at getting to the table and taking out the pen, but I'm also full of doubt and anxiety and fear, so it keeps me from working at the writing."

"Doubt, anxiety, and fear."


"There's a lovely thing that Kerouac wrote when he was young, back in the '40s when his father was dying, and Jack was taking care of him while his mother worked at the shoe factory. Kerouac wrote in one of his notebooks, 'Strike me God, and I'll ring like a bell.'"

"'Strike me God, and I'll ring like a bell.' I would wish the same thing except I don't believe in God."

"But do you like the idea?"

"Yes. Take me, take me. Inspiration is greatly overrated. Sometimes it actually happens. You start writing as if it were coming from nowhere. But with nonfiction, it's a bit more difficult. But sometimes I've assimilated so much that I can sit down and it starts pouring out. It's not often. I wish somebody would strike me and it would come out like that. Of course, real writing is rewriting. That's when you make it good. But just to get it out the first time is such a great achievement. Then you can have even more fun. Then I have my best time."

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