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For years, Washington’s used-book stores received a steady stream of well-thumbed copies of A Civil Action. It seemed as if every lawyer had read Jonathan Harr’s best seller about an earnest attorney seduced into the tarpit of mass torts. The search for truth in the American courts, the glory and the danger of crusading for clients, the tug-of-war between admiring that lawyer’s passion and recoiling as he was dragged further and further under — you too, right? Harr is back with another seductive search for truth. This time the setting isn’t a struggling industrial town in Massachusetts, but the sunny piazzas of the Eternal City, Rome. And the hunt is for an Italian masterpiece, missing for hundreds of years. The Lost Painting recounts the serendipitous search for “The Taking of Christ,” a picture by the Baroque master Caravaggio showing the arrest of Christ as Judas flees. Painted around 1600 for the noble (and fabulously wealthy) Mattei family, “The Taking of Christ” disappeared from the historical record shortly thereafter. Or so it seemed. Today fewer than 80 paintings by Caravaggio are known to exist. Those that survived are noted for their intense light, deep shadow, and striking naturalism. Religious art being the big moneymaker in Caravaggio’s day, he worked often for the Roman Catholic Church. But the officials who commissioned his work frequently refused to accept delivery once they saw the finished product: His Madonnas had dirty hands. Caravaggio himself led a short and violent life, with too many street brawls and too little time before the easel. Having made his name in Rome, he was then forced to flee the city after accidentally killing a member of a powerful and thuggish clan. (Allegedly the painter was only trying to emasculate the man, but his sword slipped.) Four years later, Caravaggio died under still-mysterious circumstances, at the age of 39. After his death, Caravaggio’s reputation fell precipitously. Art lovers came to scorn his paintings as low-minded, feeding “upon horror and ugliness, and filthiness of sin,” in the words of the 19th-century critic John Ruskin. For years no one knew, or much cared, where “The Taking of Christ” was or if, indeed, it still survived. But in the past half-century the art world, pushed by the late Italian scholar Roberto Longhi, has rediscovered Caravaggio with a vengeance. By 1989, when Harr’s story truly begins, a Caravaggio masterpiece could be expected to sell for tens of millions of dollars. That year, art student Francesca Capelletti began an investigation into Caravaggio’s work that would eventually shed light on the long-hidden journey of “The Taking of Christ.” Her work built on one brilliant insight by Longhi, who didn’t live to see his prediction come true. With new information uncovered by Francesca and the unbelievable luck that befell art restorer Sergio Benedetti the next year, a painting was reintroduced to the world. Harr tells his story from several viewpoints, but his chief guide is Francesca. Twenty-four years old in 1989, with dark eyes and high cheekbones, she scooted around Rome on her rusty motorbike, skirt pushed up to her thighs, long brown hair rippling in the breeze. She often arrived late and then apologized with “a breathless, stricken sincerity, wide-eyed and imploring.” Ahem. Harr follows Francesca deep into the public records of Italy, where export documents of two centuries ago are carefully maintained, and into the private records of noble Roman families, who still preserve the household inventories and property receipts of their great-, great-, great-, etc. grandfathers. We also meet the leading scholars on Caravaggio, the chief victims of what Francesca calls “the Caravaggio disease.” In articles and conferences, they squabble over every scrap of information. And they adhere to their own brand of situational ethics, in which the preservation of art and its history is the highest goal, and withholding crucial information for months from an employer or a client is apparently acceptable. But you don’t have to be a lover of the Italian Baroque to appreciate The Lost Painting. Shorter and simpler than his densely packed A Civil Action, Harr’s latest book tells its tale in carefully chosen moments that build to reveal an impassioned world. Like many smaller works, it offers a kind of jewellike perfection. The Italian syllables that melt on your tongue, the dust motes floating in the shafts of sunlight that illuminate silent archives, the glowing oils that emerge as years of grime and dust are wiped away. Che piacere.
Elizabeth Engdahl can be reached at [email protected].

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