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Book Review 

by Michael Bowen & r & The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr & r & He was a violent drunk who liked to insult people and then pick knife fights with them. He was also a genius: He transformed Renaissance sacred art by inserting the riffraff of his day into biblical scenes and then capturing them in mid-dramatic action. He gave us the Gospels by strobe light.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was a complex character, all right. He created masterpieces; inspired artist-imitators; alienated patrons, rival gang members and the police; and then crawled into a death-spiral that partly caused his paintings to be little valued for nearly three centuries (until a critical reevaluation began in the 1940s).

But you don't get a whole lot of that in The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece (Random House) -- which is both a strength and a weakness of Jonathan Harr's book. Harr parcels out Caravaggio's eventful life only in snippets; readers will search in vain for any reproductions of Caravaggio's St. John and St. Matthew paintings (repeatedly mentioned in the text) or of any photographs of the principal figures in Harr's nonfiction account. Presumably, those omissions will be corrected when the paperback edition this book deserves is released. (At least the dust jacket reproduces the painting that once was lost but now is found.)

Harr has created a detective story set amid the art history and art restoration crowd. There's the elderly Englishman, a world-renowned Caravaggio expert. The Roman grad student, poring over centuries-old inventories in ramshackle Italian villas. The insight, reached by three scholars independently, that Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ (the Judas kiss at nighttime, for centuries presumed lost) had been sold to Scotland, then probably carried off to Ireland. The restorer of paintings, ambitious for a new Caravaggio discovery, dumbfounded by his good luck and then devastated when he nearly damages the painting. Twice.

The entire detailed account should make readers thankful for those who endure hours of painstaking work just so the rest of us can gawk inside museums. Yet in a world of war, disaster and famine, what lessons does such a high-falutin' account convey? Geniuses, especially in their personal lives, aren't always what they're cracked up to be. Beauty, fragile in its gestation and preservation, is therefore all the more precious. Just a painting? People devote their lives to pursuits like authenticating The Taking of Christ. Their efforts enrich us all, and so does Jonathan Harr's celebration of their work.

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