I had the good venture of spending my high school years in Rome, just at the time when you get acquainted with the fine arts. My memories are still vivid with entering the churches of San Luigi dei Francesi and Santa Maria del Popolo and seeing the Caravaggios in there.
They are an unforgettable sight. They hang high up, far out of reach, and you have to drop a coin to turn on the lights that allow you to see them. And when you do, get ready for them, because they are not what you'd expect in a church.
Caravaggio's paintings are spectacular in a way you can't readily appreciate, because they are so contradictory. They are vulgar in their depictions of the commonest things, and yet sublime. They are photorealistic, yet give up any pretension of accuracy when even major positional problems face the painter with the ugliness of reality.
Most importantly, they deviate from all prior painting in that they depict scenes where lighting comes from one source only. In a world where 3D rendering programs know how to deal with that out of the box, that seems like little innovation – but go and look at all other paintings of the time!
The single source of light gives Caravaggio the opportunity to highlight whatever he wants, and he makes wide and generous use of this. In his paintings, nothing is left to chance: highlights always indicate something important, and low lights are the mark of the unattractive, secondary. A little like Michelangelo's later sculptures, unfinished in parts where the detail was irrelevant.
Like everything shocking, though, Caravaggio's art is very polarizing. There really are people that are troubled by his way of looking at the world, especially the Church, his most common and most likely commissioner. Caravaggio loved painting the beauties around him, which invariably included courtesans. Rome was tiny, and the prostitutes of the time were as famous as rock stars today. Can you imagine the uproar when a monastic order would commission a Holy Mary, and they'd find themselves staring at a well known harlot? Picking up on the rock star analogy: imagine if your Church around the corner commissioned a mural of the Virgin Mary, to find themselves staring at a photorealistic reproduction of Paris Hilton.
It came to be, then, that Caravaggio was widely ridiculed and forgotten for centuries. It took a more licentious era to get the world interested in him again, since in addition to being a great artist, Caravaggio had a life worthy of a crime novel combined with a smut magazine.
It came thus to be that people started hunting for Caravaggio paintings all over the world. From near obscurity, valued mostly for their age, Caravaggio's art became some of the most valuable in the world. The mystery of art and the hunting instinct of the art historian combined with greed to make some of the most interesting stories.
One such is told in the book reviewed here, Jonathan Harr's The Lost Painting. The tone chosen is indeed that of a crime novel: a detailed account of journalistic accuracy, embellished only to the bare minimum with details from the protagonists lives.
The painting at stake is The Taking of Christ, a painting commissioned by the Mattei family that was giving Caravaggio free room and board at the time. Caravaggio, who was not an easy fella to get along with, got in trouble with the law and the relationship with the Mattei family ended. A few years after that Caravaggio died.
The Taking of Christ was not spared its own drama-rich history: the Mattei squandered their immense fortune, and many, many years later the painting was sold to a British gentleman. From there on, it disappeared. It was held in such high regard during its time, though, that several copies were made. This ensured continued interest in the original.
Harr's book is extremely interesting, even for a complete layman that knows nothing of paintings. All the players in this puzzle are presented with compassion, and the art takes a back seat to the facts in the matter. You learn the painstaking art of restoring a painting, of tracing back its fortunes, of ensuring that it's the real thing.
Art historians are a strange bunch: they have to live with a solid canon, especially now that revisionism has taken a second look at a lot of the old and discarded masters of yore. You end up spending a lot of time not talking about art but about artisanship: this is what Caravaggio painted like, this is what he used as paints, as canvases. It sounds dull and boring, but in the hands of Mr. Carr, with the idea of a mystery to unravel, it becomes compelling – not quite The Name of the Rose compelling, but quite closer to The Da Vinci Code.