Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Caravaggio Disease

The Lost Painting, by Jonathan Harr, Read by Campbell Scott, Books on Tape, 2005

I have to admit I had no idea quite what to expect from this book. My knowledge of the painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is slight save for the fact that in the last few years he’s been somewhat of a hot commodity. My knowledge of Jonathan Harr is that he wrote a book that was made into a movie and John Travolta ham-boned around in it, as part of his five-year plan to squander all the good will he engendered making Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty. Battleship Earth? Mission accomplished and how. Get ready for more Look Who’s Talking sequels soon.

From what I’ve learned listening to Harr’s engaging and lively account of the discovery of a long lost painting of Caravaggio’s I can definitely say that my wife would love his work. What amazes her consistently in paintings is an artist who can really capture luminescence and paint its effects as if you were seeing it in actuality. The little I knew previously about the life of the painter wasn’t greatly added to by The Lost Painting — Harr is rather short on biography — but there are quite a few fascinating details about this particular painting that I’ll remember for quite some time.

The story begins with an almost fictional account of an Englishman, Sir Denis Mahon, a Caravaggio and his era expert, in Italy going out to eat. My first impression on listening to this opening chapter was that I was mistaken about the book being non-fiction. Harr tells his tale almost as a novelist, the book never once losing its fictive style, third person limited narration. The telling is brisk, the digging through archives and family records fascinating, the learning compelling.

While Harr unfurls a rather exciting detective story, dropping a number of little details about art restoration and historical searches, there is, as I’ve mentioned, too little about the painter himself. This is kind of amusing in a full-circle way as that this is a book about the 1992 discovery of a painting lost for over 200 years that sparked all the current rage for Caravaggio including a number of biographies. And so we’re chintzed a little in that department as others have covered it so well recently, covered it partly as a result of the to-do set in motion by the events in this book.

What we do get instead are almost thrilling accounts of the various researchers who puzzled together the history of the painting, tracking it to its final stop before discovery. While the leg-work provided in the book’s first half would go a long way to authenticating the discovery, the actual finding of the physical work and its recognition occurs separately. Together both pieces of the story work in a neat almost-jigsaw fashion, complementing each other even if the fit isn’t the snuggest.

Sir Denis is merely just the beginning. He is a recurring character, the Caravaggio expert who each of the various parties at one time or another appeals to or seeks out for an introduction or a lead. The book’s heart goes to the University of Rome graduate student, Francesca Cappelletti who doggedly chases down each sliver of information, spending hours and days down in a family vault looking through musty old record books of a rich Italian family who once owned the missing painting. It’s a shame when she reaches the end of her journey and can’t take it any further, when the trail turns cold on her. She is perhaps the only faultless character in the book, neither temperamental nor egotistical.

The same can not be said for her countryman Sergio Benedetti, working at the considerably second rate, low budget National Gallery of Ireland. While working as one of the restorers, he, as a museum employee, takes on the odd job of restoration for a local Jesuit house. The painting ended up in their possession due to ignorance and generosity, no one knowing that it is really the gorgeous, lost “The Taking of Christ” they have on their hands. And why would they? As Harr describes the painting, “the entire surface [was] obscured by a film of dust, grease, and soot. The varnish had turned a yellowish brown, giving the flesh tones in the faces and hands a tobacco-like hue. The robe worn by Christ had turned the color of dead leaves.”

Benedetti recognizes the painting for what it is in the first glance, but it is his hubris, his impatience with the restoration process that almost destroys the painting, not once but twice. Harr is good at explaining in layman’s terms what it is about Benedetti’s technique that causes such problems. In fact, Harr does a rather decent job making the entire process of verification, restoration, and documentation seem simpler than it is, which is exactly what you want in a book of this variety.

The clear, clean descriptions he provides of the art world, its people and its procedures, as well as the tantalizing hints and glimpses of leads in tracking down lost painting, make this book move effortlessly along with the grace and economy of a mystery thriller. While no one dies in the book’s course (save some historical deaths mentioned in the capsule bio bits of Caravaggio), the pacing make the book almost edge of the seat reading.

Actor Campbell Scott is one of those rare people in Hollywood who has a clearly and obviously penetrating mind, and it shows regardless of the film he’s in. There are numerous scenes I can visualize in which you can see that he’s thinking, really thinking through the ramifications what of what has happened or is just about to. He reads this book with his typically dry inflection, an authoritative ease in his voice, as though merely relating things he just happens to know himself. That he might be an expert on restoration of Baroque era canvasses doesn’t seem a leap. Too many actors, when it’s clear that there’s very little going on upstairs, try to stretch themselves in roles where the intelligence of their role is clearly above them in every respect. This sensitive, intelligent reading accents the book in such a way that even though you necessarily won’t be, you definitely come away feeling like a smarter person yourself.

1 comment:

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