The Englishman moves in a slow but deliberate shuffle, knees slightly
bent and feet splayed, as he crosses the piazza, heading in the
direction of a restaurant named Da Fortunato. The year is 2001. The
Englishman is ninety-one years old. He carries a cane, the
old-fashioned kind, wooden with a hooked handle, although he does not
always use it. The dome of his head, smooth as an eggshell, gleams pale
in the bright midday Roman sun. He is dressed in his customary manner-a
dark blue double-breasted suit, hand tailored on Savile Row more than
thirty years ago, and a freshly starched white shirt with gold cuff
links and a gold collar pin. His hearing is still sharp, his eyes clear
and unclouded. He wears glasses, but then he has worn glasses ever
since he was a child. The current pair are tortoiseshell and sit
cockeyed on his face, the left earpiece broken at the joint. He has
fashioned a temporary repair with tape. The lenses are smudged with his
Da Fortunato is located on a small street, in the shadow of the
Pantheon. There are tables outside, shaded by a canopy of umbrellas,
but the Englishman prefers to eat inside. The owner hurries to greet
him and addresses him as Sir Denis, using his English honorific. The
waiters all call him Signore Mahon. He speaks to them in Italian with
easy fluency, although with a distinct Etonian accent.
Sir Denis takes a single glass of red wine with lunch. A waiter
recommends that he try the grilled porcini mushrooms with Tuscan olive
oil and sea salt, and he agrees, smiling and clapping his hands
together. "It's the season!" he says in a high, bright voice
to the others at his table, his guests. "They are ever so good
When in Rome he always eats at Da Fortunato, if not constrained by
invitations to dine elsewhere. He is a man of regular habits. On his
many visits to the city, he has always stayed at the Albergo del
Senato, in the same corner room on the third floor, with a window that
looks out over the great smoke-grayed marble portico of the Pantheon.
Back home in London, he lives in the house in which he was born, a
large redbrick Victorian townhouse in the quiet, orderly confines of
Cadogan Square, in Belgravia. He was an only child. He has never
married, and he has no direct heirs. His lovers-on this subject he is
forever discreet-have long since died.
Around the table, the topic of conversation is an artist who lived four
hundred years ago, named Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Sir Denis
has studied, nose to the canvas, magnifying glass in hand, every known
work by the artist. Since the death of his rival and nemesis, the great
Italian art scholar Roberto Longhi, Sir Denis has been regarded as the
world's foremost authority on Caravaggio. Nowadays, younger scholars
who claim the painter as their domain will challenge him on this point
or that, as he himself had challenged Longhi many years ago. Even so,
he is still paid handsome sums by collectors to render his opinion on
the authenticity of disputed works. His verdict can mean a gain or loss
of a small fortune for his clients.
To his great regret, Sir Denis tells his luncheon companions, he's
never had the chance to own a painting by Caravaggio. For one thing,
fewer than eighty authentic Caravaggios-some would argue no more than
sixty-are known to exist. Several were destroyed during World War II,
and others have simply vanished over the centuries. A genuine
Caravaggio rarely comes on the market.
Sir Denis began buying the works of Baroque artists in the 1930s, when
the ornate frames commanded higher prices at auction than the paintings
themselves. Over the years he has amassed a virtual museum of seicento
art in his house at Cadogan Square, seventy-nine masterpieces, works by
Guercino, Guido Reni, the Carracci brothers, and Domenichino. He bought
his last painting in 1964. By then, prices had begun to rise
dramatically. After two centuries of disdain and neglect, the great
tide of style had shifted, and before Sir Denis's eyes, the Italian
Baroque had come back into fashion.
And no artist of that era has become more fashionable than Caravaggio.
Any painting by him, even a small one, would be worth today many times
the price of Sir Denis's finest Guercino. "A Caravaggio? Perhaps
now as much as forty, fifty million English pounds," he says with
a small shrug. "No one can say for certain."
He orders a bowl of wild strawberries for dessert. One of his guests
asks about the day, many years ago, when he went in search of a missing
Caravaggio. Sir Denis smiles. The episode began, he recalls, with a
disagreement with Roberto Longhi, who in 1951 had mounted the first
exhibition in Milan of all known works by Caravaggio. Sir Denis, then
forty-one years old and already known for his eye, spent several days
at the exhibition studying the paintings. Among them was a picture of
St. John the Baptist as a young boy, from the Roman collection of the
Doria Pamphili family. No one had ever questioned its authenticity. But
the more Sir Denis looked at the painting, the more doubtful he became.
Later, in the files of the Archivio di Stato in Rome, he came across
the trail of another version, one he thought more likely to be the
He went looking for it one day in the winter of 1952. Most likely it
was morning, although he does not recall this with certainty. He walked
from his hotel at a brisk pace-he used to walk briskly, he says-through
the narrow, cobbled streets still in morning shadow, past ancient
buildings with their umber-colored walls, stained and mottled by
centuries of smoke and city grime, the shuttered windows flung open to
catch the early sun. He would have worn a woolen overcoat against the
damp Roman chill, and a hat, a felt fedora, he believes. He dressed
back then as he dresses now-a starched white shirt with a high,
old-fashioned collar, a tie, a double-breasted suit-although in those
days he carried an umbrella instead of the cane.
His path took him through a maze of streets, many of which, in the
years just after the war, still lacked street signs. He had no trouble
finding his way. Even then he knew the streets of central Rome as well
as he knew London's.
At the Capitoline Hill, he climbed the long stairway up to the piazza
designed by Michelangelo. A friend named Carlo Pietrangeli, the
director of the Capitoline Gallery, was waiting for him. They greeted
each other in the English way, with handshakes. Sir Denis does not like
being embraced, and throughout his many sojourns in Italy he has
largely managed to avoid the customary greeting of a clasp and a kiss
on both cheeks.
Pietrangeli told Sir Denis that he had finally managed to locate the
object of his search in, of all places, the office of the mayor of
Rome. Before that, the painting had hung for many years in the office
of the inspector general of belle arti, in a medieval building on the
Via del Portico d'Ottavia, in the Ghetto district of the city. The
inspector general had regarded the painting merely as a decorative
piece with a nice frame, of no particular value. The original, after
all, was at the Doria Pamphili. After the war-Pietrangeli did not know
the precise details-someone had moved it to the Palazzo Senatorio, and
finally to the mayor's office.
Pietrangeli and Sir Denis crossed the piazza to the Palazzo Senatorio.
The mayor's office lay at the end of a series of dark hallways and
antechambers, a spacious room with a high ceiling and a small balcony
that looked out over the ancient ruins of the Imperial Forum. There was
no one in the office. Sir Denis spotted the painting hanging high on a
He remembers standing beneath it, his head canted back, gazing intently
up and comparing it in his mind with the one he had seen at Longhi's
exhibition, the Doria Pamphili version. From his vantage point, several
feet below the painting, it appeared almost identical in size and
composition. It depicted a naked boy, perhaps twelve years old, partly
reclined, his body in profile, but his face turned to the viewer, a coy
smile crossing his mouth. Most art historians thought Caravaggio had
stolen the pose from Michelangelo, from a nude in the Sistine Chapel,
and had made a ribald, irreverent parody of it.
From where he stood, Sir Denis could not make out the finer details.
The surface of the canvas was dark, the image of the boy obscured by
layers of dust and grime and yellowed varnish. But he could tell that
the quality was superb. Then again, so was the quality of the Doria
He turned to Pietrangeli and exclaimed, "For goodness sake, Carlo,
we must get a closer look! We must get a ladder."
Waiting for the ladder to arrive, he paced impatiently in front of the
painting, never taking his eyes off it. He thought he could discern
some subtle differences between it and the Doria version. Here the
boy's gaze caught the viewer directly, mockingly, whereas the eyes of
the Doria boy seemed slightly averted, the smile distinctly less open.
When a workman finally arrived with a ladder, Sir Denis clambered up
and studied the canvas with his magnifying glass. The paint surface had
the characteristic craquelure, the web of fine capillary-like cracks
produced by the drying of the oil that contained the paint pigments. He
saw some abrasion in the paint surface, particularly along the borders,
where the canvas and the wooden stretcher behind it came into contact.
In some areas, the ground, or preparatory layer, had become visible. He
noted that the ground was dark reddish brown in color and roughly
textured, as if sand had been mixed into it. This was precisely the
type of ground that Caravaggio had often used.
He studied the face of the boy again, the eyes and mouth, areas
difficult even for a great painter. This face, he concluded, was much
livelier than the Doria version. Indeed, the entire work felt fresher
and lighter in both color and execution. He detected the spark of
invention and creativity in this painting, something a copyist could
never achieve. By the time he climbed down the ladder he felt convinced
that Caravaggio's hand had created this painting. As for the Doria
version, it was possible, as some maintained, that Caravaggio himself
had copied his own work, perhaps at the insistence of a wealthy patron.
But Sir Denis was skeptical. He doubted that Caravaggio had ever known
about the Doria painting.
At Da Fortunato, Sir Denis pauses after telling this story, and then he
smiles. Longhi died years ago, and he'd never accepted the Capitoline
version as the original. Longhi was not one to admit a mistake, says
Sir Denis. That was the beginning-Sir Denis chuckles-of many
disagreements and a long, contentious, and very satisfying feud.
The Englishman has had a hand in the search for several other lost
paintings by Caravaggio. He mentions one in particular-it was called
The Taking of Christ-that had been the object of both his and Longhi's
desire. It had vanished without a trace more than two centuries ago.
Like the St. John, many copies had turned up, all suggesting a
masterpiece, but none worthy of attribution to Caravaggio. Longhi, near
the end of his life, had come up with an important clue in the mystery
of the painting's disappearance.
It had been a clever deduction on Longhi's part, Sir Denis tells his
guests. But, poor fellow, he hadn't lived to solve the mystery.
The past held many secrets, and gave them up grudgingly. Sir Denis
believed that a painting was like a window back into time, that with
meticulous study he could peer into a work by Caravaggio and observe
that moment, four hundred years ago, when the artist was in his studio,
studying the model before him, mixing colors on his palette, putting
brush to canvas. Sir Denis believed that by studying the work of an
artist he could penetrate the depths of that man's mind. In the case of
Caravaggio, it was the mind of a genius. A murderer and a madman,
perhaps, but certainly a genius. And no copy, however good, could
possibly reveal those depths. That would be like glimpsing a man's
shadow and thinking you could know the man.
THE ROMAN GIRL
A late afternoon in February, the sun slanting low across the rooftops
of Rome. The year was 1989. From the door of the Bibliotheca Hertziana
on Via Gregoriana came Francesca Cappelletti, carrying a canvas bag
full of books, files, and notebooks in one hand, and a large purse in
the other. She was a graduate student at the University of Rome,
twenty-four years old, five feet six inches tall, eyes dark brown,
cheekbones high and prominent. Her hair, thick and dark, fell to her
shoulders. It had a strange hue, the result of a recent visit to a
beauty salon near the Piazza Navona, where a hairdresser convinced her
that red highlights would make it look warmer. In fact, the highlights
made it look metallic, like brass. She wore no makeup, no earrings, and
only a single pearl ring on her left hand. Her chin had a slight cleft,
most noticeable in repose, although at the moment she was decidedly not
She was late for an appointment. She had a long, rueful history of
being late. As a consequence she'd perfected the art of theatrical
apology. The traffic of Rome was her most common excuse, but she'd also
invented stuck elevators, missing keys, broken heels, emotional crises,
and illnesses in her family. Her apologies had a breathless, stricken
sincerity, wide-eyed and imploring, which had rendered them acceptable
time and again to friends and lovers.
This appointment was with a man named Giampaolo Correale. He had hired
Francesca and several other art history students, friends of hers, to
do research on some paintings at the Capitoline Gallery. Every few
weeks, he would convene a meeting at his apartment to discuss their
progress. Francesca wasn't always late for these meetings. And on those
occasions when she had been, Correale had usually forgiven her with a
wave of his hand. She had proven herself to be one of his more
productive workers. All the same, he had a temperament that alarmed
Francesca, capable of expansive good humor one moment and sudden fits
of anger the next.
She rode her motorino, an old rust-stained blue Piaggio model, past the
church of Trinità dei Monte and the Villa Medici, down the winding
road to the Piazza del Popolo. She was a cautious but inexpert driver,
despite eight years of experience.
Excerpted from "The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece" by Jonathan Harr. Copyright © 2006 by Jonathan Harr. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.