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The Caravaggio code

Seeking a lost masterwork, scholars unraveled the clues in a yellowing canvas and piles of centuries-old papers

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece
By Jonathan Harr
Random House, 271 pp., $24.95

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.)

We get their labors, uncertainties, ambitions; we get the society, national and professional, that they move in. We see what it is to struggle up into the Italian scholarly hierarchy, and to deal, as Italians, with the more impersonal and less visibly convoluted English version. Along with their progress we also get the winds and crosswinds that spur, hinder, or plain distract it. Harr winds us entrancingly into his own side trips. His story is more than a road; it is the entire countryside the road runs through.

Francesca and Laura -- I borrow the intimacy that Harr manages to create -- come upon important materials concerning ''The Taking of Christ" while researching a different Caravaggio painting, that of Saint John the Baptist. They are among a group of students assembled by a temperamental and volatile scholar to help him prepare a seminar on the Saint John.

Seeking difficult access to the archives of the Mattei family, Caravaggio's patrons, Francesca resorts to a student friend connected in aristocratic circles (circular connections being a shorter Roman distance than straight lines). Thriving in circularity, she gets grudging permission from a surviving Mattei to visit her country house, decayed remnant of an ancient fortune, in the Adriatic Marches.

A toothless old woman opens the gate, gazes owl-like through two pairs of eyeglasses, and emits a summoning screech. All faded elegance, the marchesa appears and conducts them to the damp cellar, where papers dating back 400 years lie in great heaps. While the young women spend days going through them, the marchesa smokes and watches, dolefully recounting her family's ruined history.

In fact, though the Saint John material is valuable, the real find is documentation that records the sale of ''The Taking of Christ" -- mislabeled as the work of a Dutch painter -- to an English collector in 1802. Francesca later travels to Edinburgh, where the trail ends in 1921 after the painting, worth tens of millions of dollars today, was sold for 8 guineas to an unknown buyer. A dozen years later it resurfaced (in disguise) when an Irish doctor presented the yellowed blur to the Dublin Jesuits, leaving behind no clue to how she'd acquired it.

Although Benedetti's discovery and restoration were the heart of the magazine piece, and are told here in their full thrilling complexity, the heart of the book is Francesca. Her ventures and misadventures provide a rich texture that grounds her quest in a larger context. Her efforts are a voyage of discovery that takes us from the intricacies, politics, and passions -- professional and personal -- of Italian art scholarship into a spacious and utterly human portrait of contemporary Italian life and culture.

Francesca emerges as an exhilarating, I would like to say hopeful, exemplar. She is a free woman within the lingering, and dwindling, constraints of a profession largely dominated by men. Her work, carried out with utmost seriousness and not a little adventurous play, is patronized and to a degree exploited by her mentors. At the end she has won respectful recognition and a teaching post at the University of Ferrara.

Harr fashions an irresistible portrait of feminine independence not just within a profession but from it as well. We see Francesca's tiny rusted-out car shuddering its way over the Apennines; we see her, perpetually late, dissecting the Rome traffic at full speed, head turned to chat with her passenger. We read of a long relationship, as much discursive as passionate, with a fellow student. And, submerged in the Mattei archive, she hopes for an hour or two at the beach to ginger up her tan for a date with a former lover. No thought of renewing it: the point is to rekindle not desire but desirability.

There is no room to sketch the other splendid portraits that Harr gives us. His book is about the pursuit of lost art and also the life of the pursuit. He writes with a novelist's gift for character and a dramatist's for character in action.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

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