Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 20, 2009

I Have a Touch of the Caravaggio Disease

Arts travel is one of the most important niche markets in the global travel and tourism industry. The latter, by the way, is the largest such industry on the planet. And on that theme, I offer the following as food for thought.

It’s time today for a little armchair and retrospective travelling because I am not feeling quite myself, due to a touch of passion. I picked up the bug by reading Johnathan Harr’s The Lost Painting: The Quest For a Caravaggio Masterpiece.

Arts travel is of course (like golf) one of the specialty and impassioned niche markets of the travel industry; arts aficionados will travel just about anywhere to get their fix. Furthermore, those who are addicted to Caravaggio are especially vulnerable.

The book is a fascinating read. It’s one of those recent books in the genre of non-fiction that actually read like novels. (John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels is another good example.)

Like Caravaggio himself, it’s a book about the passion for art, mystery, and intrigue. It’s a book that contains very colourful characters who have equally intriguing character traits, and it is of course a book about a quest. Well for goodness sake, all of us who love to travel or write about it know that what we do is a perpetual quest. It’s kind of like adolescence: I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

The book is also high drama, blending accounts of Caravaggio’s … um … rather dysfunctional life with the contemporary story of the search for the original of his painting The Taking of Christ. And in the art world, he/she who finds the next real Caravaggio becomes almost immortal!

Most consider Caravaggio a revolutionary in that he … “invented” a unique and awesome use of light and shadow. The figures he painted, especially in his religious paintings, are “illuminated” (in various senses of the word) in such a way that the viewer does tend to experience a bit of a flush. The faces of his figures especially reveal intense emotion — and that’s an understatement.

And The Lost Painting: The Quest For a Caravaggio Masterpiece is also illuminating and highly informative on other levels. You learn a lot about this competitive market, about art scholars — Caravaggio scholars are a breed unto themselves — and about the fascinating world of art restoration. I don’t think I can ever walk by any Old Master again without worrying about it. Has the restoration process been successful? Is that painting actually infested with bugs? Yup … bugs happen … and then the art restorers have to call in specialist debuggers. And, this is the part that makes my heart go pity pat, isn’t it all just a question of time? Even though it was found again and meticulously restored, can The Taking of Christ last forever? Are we all not doomed? Gadzooks!

By the way, there are quite a few of Caravaggio’s paintings that went astray, and there were many copies made of some of them by “copyests”; expert painters themselves who were very good but not quite Caravaggio. So part of the intrigue of this book is somewhat like that old Clairol ad “Does she or doesn’t she,” only here it’s a case of “Is it or isn’t it?”

But damn it, what Johnathan Harr has done in this book is not only give me a touch of the vapours, but he has also kick started my wanderlust again. I now want to get back to some of the great art museums of Europe where I know I probably wandered blithely past Caravaggio’s work and given them a proper but only cursory study. Now I want to get down and dirty (so to speak) with his work, in part because I now know a lot more about him, his techniques, and about the disappearance of so many of his works. How could this have happened? Somebody should do something!


If you want to see the real masterpiece at the center of this drama, you are going to have to go to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. Hmmm …. sounds good to me.

And to indulge yourself big time in Caravaggio, may I recommend The National Gallery in London?

While you are packing for your trip, you may want to visit the following Caravaggio Web museums.

Web Museum One

Web Museum Two

And to read the book, check out Amazon at:

The Lost Painting: The Quest For a Caravaggio Masterpiece

… or visit your public library.

(The real town square of a healthy community is its public library.)


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