Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Lost Painting - Book Review

The Lost Painting
by Jonathan Harr
Random House 2005

Michelangelo. We've all heard of him. He's the fellow who painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. His full name was Michelangelo Buonorotti.

Did you know there was another famous painter named Michelangelo around the same time? But this fellow is much better known by his surname. His full name was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. (1571-1610)

This is the story of the hunt for one of Caravaggios' original paintings. Caravaggio painted less than 100 pictures. And he may or may not have made his own copies of them. He died in 1610 aged just 37.

There are 3 main characters in this story. A Italian girl from Rome, an English gentleman and an Italian restorer living in Ireland. Their names are Francesca Cappelletti, Sir Denis Mahon and Sergio Benedetti. The time is the early 1990s (1990 to 1993).

In 1990 Francesca was an art history student in Rome. She became involved in the search for the Taking of Christ, one of Caravaggios most famous paintings that had been lost. This painting was created by Caravaggio in 1602 and held by the Mattei family for several centuries. In the early 1900's the Mattei family fortunes declined (someone had a gambling problem ) and the family began selling off its art collection. Francesca was able to trace the painting to an auction house in Edinburgh, Scotland, and there she lost the trail.

Meanwhile an Italian restorer in Dublin, Ireland by the name of Sergio Benedetti, who worked for the National Gallery of Ireland, was given the job of restoring an old painting by Gerard von Honthorst, a Dutch follower of Caravaggio, from a Irish Jesuit house.

As Sergio began cleaning the painting, he became more and more convinced that this painting was actually the lost Taking of Christ by Caravaggio. He eventually met up with Francesca in Rome to get her story, and finally in 1993 it was declared the lost Caravaggio original. Denis Mahon is an elderly English art expert (born 1910) and he confirmed Sergio's opinion of the Irish painting being the original.

The only problem with the provenance was a 10 year gap between the auction house sale in 1920 and the owner in the 1930s. who donated the painting to the Jesuits when she died. The auction house no longer has any records of who purchased the Honthorst painting in 1920. So the National Gallery in Ireland now has a genuine Caravaggio on permanent loan.

In 2003 a new contraversy arose. Another painting of the Taking of Christ was found in Rome. This family insisted that it was the original and that the Irish painting was only a copy. But after testing, the Rome picture was found to have a paint called Naples Yellow in it. Caravaggio never used Naples Yellow in any of his paintings. Also the regular use of Naples Yellow did not begin until 1630 - 20 years after Caravaggio's death. So the Rome painting has been deemed a copy by someone else other than Caravaggio. The Dublin painting is still the original according to the art world.

This is an excellent book. It is easy to read, and it explains all the art details in easy to understand terms. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learnt a lot. I read this for the Non-Fiction Challenge.

Works by Caravaggio

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