Finally, a popular book published aboutÂ art history that won't have art historians tearing their hair out and screaming uncontrollably (Read: Da Vinci Code).
The Lost Painting is a non-fiction account that never reads like a textbook, yet retains the wonderment reserved for true stories.Â Harris describes the research process, the trials and tribulations of authenticating great works of art and highlights the fickleness of facts. Unlike car chases, painting chases can apparently still be exciting if they last a century, or four. The lost/found painting in question is The Taking of Christ, painted at the dawn of the 17th century by the legendary bad-boy of counter-reformation art, Caravaggio.Â
At first, the painting wasn't so much lost as forgotten. Until 1900, few serious critics and historians trifled with the "lesser Italian artist." Now, Caravaggio's works are sold for millions, proudly exhibited and often as sophisticatedly forged as they were centuries ago.Â The Taking of Christ travels from country to country, generation to generation; drifting from cellars to museums, homes and auction houses as it collects dust incognito.
The Lost Painting allows the reader to understand the excitement of unravelling the mysteries of the past, with the plot following individual researchers, restorers and scholars as their lives briefly converge with The Taking of Christ.Â Each aspect of the painting's existence is described in rigorous detail, from its various gilded frames, gambling owners and prices, to a beetle infestation it housed right under the noses of those who sought so diligently to find and preserve it. The book is not, however, a sterile chronology of events, but is instead fleshed out with the most humorous and violent aspects of the artist's life punctuating the story rather than slowing down its progression. The deftly integrated ambitions, obsessions and petty schemes of the key players add a human element that provides relief to the dust and leather grimoires filled with scratchy Latin handwriting.
The overall readability andÂ fluid nature of the narrativeÂ is surprising consideringÂ realityÂ seldom hasÂ this many interestingÂ plot twists. Perhaps it only appears to have played out so smoothly due to Harris's gift for weaving a story, which he does with careful precision, describing decade-long paper trails without boring the reader. Thankfully, he doesn't overkill the nostalgia by travelling too wistfully through the decades. He gives preference to gas chromatograph pigment analysis and x-rays.
From a literary standpoint, the Lost Painting is not written for high-brow connoisseurs of the written word, but it's well worth the indulgence.