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The Lost Painting: By Jonathan Harr


In 1994 Jonathan Harr, author of ''A Civil Action," the gripping and beautifully fleshed-out investigation of chemical pollution in Woburn, published a magazine piece about the sensational discovery of a major Caravaggio painting at a Jesuit residence in Dublin.
It was a taut, immaculately paced account of the art world's most cherished fantasy: that somewhere in obscure attics and backstreet junk shops, a lost treasure lurks hidden under centuries of grime and neglect -- Cinderella in rags.
 
It is a fantasy hardly ever vindicated, but the rare once-in-a-while keeps it alive, like a poor man winning the Christmas lottery, though culturally far grander. The poor keep on ticket buying, junk-shop junkies keep on looking, and curators and restorers, armored in skepticism, never entirely seal themselves off from the itch.
Now Harr has turned his article into a book, ''The Lost Painting." It has to be said at once that it is far different from the usual such expansion (a matter of padding and stretching with additional research and more details). After nine years' work he has produced the vibrant painting to the preliminary sketch.
The existence of ''The Taking of Christ," which shows Jesus embraced by a bearded Judas while two Roman soldiers move in to seize him, was known to scholars. They identified a half-dozen copies but were unable to trace the original. Harr recounts two simultaneous searches. One was by Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa, two young Italian researchers. The other was by Sergio Benedetti, a restorer at Ireland's National Gallery and a particular student of Caravaggio.
As a favor to a gallery official, Benedetti looked over the Jesuits' fusty collection, was struck by a yellowy-brown blur that hung in the parlor, and convinced his doubtful superiors that it was worth investigating. After two years of precarious restoration -- including one near-disaster -- he had liberated the glowing original. Leading Caravaggio authorities authenticated it, thanks in part to a provenance partly unearthed by the two Italian researchers.
As in the magazine article, the search is the book's engine, but more finely and lavishly machined, and set with a gradually mounting complexity into more elegant motion. What the book gives us, though, is not just the engine but the journey, and in the largest sense of the word. Better than the quest, excellent as it is, we get the questers. (Just as in ''A Civil Action" it is the obsessed lawyer who stays with us even more than the scandal he battles.)

 

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