Books by accomplished journalists, and second books by best-selling authors are sometimes edited more lightly than others. The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr is such a book. Harr’s second book — his first was the 1997 chart-topper, A Civil Action — is a good book that could have been great.
The Lost Painting is the true story of the discovery of Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, a powerful work executed for the patrician Mattei family of Rome in 1602. Later misattributed to Gerrit van Honthorst, a Dutch follower of Caravaggio, it was sold in 1802 to Scotsman William Hamilton Nisbet, in whose home it hung until 1921, when it went to auction and “disappeared”.
Found and Restored.
The Lost Painting is principally the story of Sergio Benedetti, an Italian art restorer working at the National Gallery of Ireland, who recognized the painting in the Dublin home of some Jesuit priests; of Francesca Cappelletti, an art student who uncovered new information about its provenance in the Mattei family archives; and of Dennis Mahon, the eminent British art historian who guided both. It includes masterful “flashbacks” that bring Caravaggio, the bad-boy genius of the seicento, colorfully to life. And it explores without technicality the process of restoring an old masterpiece.
Hard Story to Write.
Jonathan Harr tells this fascinating tale in clear, uncomplicated prose (I listened to the unabridged audio edition narrated by Campbell Scott). But the book is slow to get underway — Harr’s hard start should have been expunged at Random House — and bogs down frequently in picayune personal details that don’t develop the characters or the story. More troublesome is Harr’s inability to clearly distinguish hard facts from suppositional fiction. Harr needs to go to school to McCullough, Morris, or Goodwin to see how to write history that reads like a novel. Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America proves a journalist can do it.
Focus, Focus, Focus.
Harr spent a lot of time writing The Lost Painting, learning art history and Italian in the process. But he spent too much time with the “characters” he likes, particularly Francesca, and not enough with those he doesn’t, like the more important Sergio. The Lost Painting is a good book that could have been great had Harr kept his distance from the characters and got closer to his editor.