Debut authors Kashani and Moss offer a revisionist take on an obscure painting in their art history debut.
Kashani, an Iranian American antiquities dealer, believes he has found a lost painting by the 16th-century Dutch artist Cornelis van Haarlem, who the authors say is sometimes called “the Da Vinci of the Dutch” or “the Michelangelo of the North.” The painting, Single Combat, depicts the battle between two sets of warrior triplets, the Horatii and the Curiatii, as recounted in the writings of the Roman historian Livy. Kashani acquired it in 2000 and since then has been seeking to authenticate it as the lost “battle scene” mentioned in an inventory at the time of the artist’s death and to decode the complex visual message hidden in—and underneath—its paint. As Kashani tells it with help from Moss, the painting reveals connections to Leonardo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Rubens, and others, and to two of the ancient world’s greatest empires. As the mystery unravels, the book reveals itself to be not only an in-depth glimpse into a distant moment in art history, but also an exploration of one man’s singular obsession to prove a highly unorthodox theory. Kashani is like a character out of a novel: eccentric, cultured, verbose, and happily at war with establishment thinking. “I’ll share my secrets—or rather Cornelis’ secrets—with you, gentle reader,” he writes in his introduction. “Far from wallowing in self-pity for feeling misunderstood, I’ve learned to kill my ego, stand strong, move forward with integrity, and make existence count regardless of academia’s prejudices.” In addition to the historical background on Cornelis and his work—fascinating in and of itself—this handsomely designed book bolsters its case with zoomed-in photographs of tiny sections of the painting and with related art, including portraits of artists and engravings of the city of Haarlem. There is as much talk of codes as in a Dan Brown novel, and at some point the reader begins to lose the thread, but the puzzle is certainly an enjoyable one to attempt to solve. Whether or not they accept Kashani’s theories, readers will come away with a greater understanding of just how much information a given painting has to communicate—and the extent to which that meaning depends, like beauty, on the eye of the beholder.
An intricate and fun art mystery surrounding an old painting.