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TOEFL Reading Question Type: Detail (example with answer)

The best way to get a high score on the TOEFL isn’t by cramming, but rather by making thoughtful and steady progress towards your goals. With this in mind, we’ll be going through a series of reading questions centered around one particular passage. Today, we’re looking at Caravaggio. (And at the end of this post, we’ll go over some more general information about the detail question type in TOEFL Reading.)

These posts will contain a reading passage and sample problem; I’ll provide answers and explanations in the next post. Today, let’s take a look at the answer to our sample detail question. If you haven’t had a chance to look over the question yet, it’s repeated below; if you don’t want any spoilers, take a look at the original post here.


The Caravaggio Mystery

Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), usually known simply as “Caravaggio,” had a dramatic life, of which parts remain mysterious to scholars even today. Why, then, would it be a surprise that mysteries also surround his work? For example, The Taking of Christ, one of his paintings that had been considered lost since the eighteenth century, was rediscovered in 1990. It had hung, seemingly unrecognized, in the dining room of the Society of the Jesuits in Dublin, Ireland, for more than fifty years. The discovery that the painting was, indeed, a Caravaggio, led many to wonder how such a treasure could be hidden—seemingly in plain sight.

The first clue historians have about The Taking of Christ is in the 1603 accounts of an Italian nobleman, Ciriaco Mattei, who paid 125 “scudi” for “a painting with its frame of Christ taken in the garden.” At the time, Caravaggio’s style, with its striking use of light and dark, was admired and often imitated by both students and fellow artists. However, trends in the art world come and go, and two centuries later, Caravaggio’s work had fallen out of favor with collectors. In fact, it wouldn’t be until the 1950s that a Caravaggio “renaissance” occurred, and interest in the artist was renewed.

In the meantime, The Taking of Christ had traveled far and wide. Ironically, it was the Mattei family itself that originally misidentified the work, though several centuries after the original purchase. In 1802, the family sold it as a Honthorst to a Scottish collector. This collector kept it in his home until his death in 1921. By 1921, The Taking of Christ—now firmly attributed to Gerard van Honthorst—was auctioned off in Edinburgh for eight guineas. This would have probably been a fair price if the work had been a van Honthorst; for a true Caravaggio, though, it was the bargain of the century. An Irish doctor bought the painting and donated it to the Dublin Jesuit Society the following decade.

From the 1930s onward, The Taking of Christ hung in the offices of the Dublin Jesuits. However, the Jesuits, who had a number of old paintings in their possession, decided to bring in a conservator to discuss restoring them in the early 1990s. Sergio Benedetti, the Senior Conservator at the National Gallery of Ireland, went to the building to examine the paintings and oversee their restoration. Decades of dirt, including smoke from the fireplace above which it hung, had to be removed from the painting before Benedetti began to suspect that the painting was not a copy of the original, but the original itself.

Two graduate students from the University of Rome, Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa, were primarily responsible for verifying that Caravaggio did, in fact, create this version of the painting. Over years of research, they found the 1603 Mattei accounts. The verification of the painting, though, went far beyond this circumstantial evidence. Certifying that a painting came from a certain artist’s hand is not easy, though forensic science that wouldn’t have been available in the 1920s helped to attribute the work to Caravaggio definitively. The canvas underwent a number of treatments. It was X-rayed and scanned with an infrared light. The cracks on the surface of the painting (known in the industry as “craquelure”) were studied. Furthermore, The Taking of Christ underwent much analysis by art historians, who studied the form and color in the painting to determine its authenticity. For example, Caravaggio never used sketches to set up the composition of his paintings. Instead, he made marks with the end of his brush as he painted—marks that can still be visible today.

Of course, the verification of the painting required entire teams of people, in addition to the three mentioned above, and took years. By 1993, the announcement was finally made that the long-lost Caravaggio had been found. Rather than sell the painting, which is most likely worth millions of dollars, the Jesuits decided to make it available to the nation of Ireland for viewing. Thus, the painting is on “indefinite loan” to the National Gallery of Ireland. Nevertheless, the painting continues its travels as it features in exhibitions around the world, from the United States to Amsterdam. In 2010, it even travelled back to Rome to be displayed for the 400th anniversary of the painter’s death. A fitting tribute, many would say, to a mysterious master.



According to paragraph 2, one sign that the painting is by Caravaggio is that

a. a similar painting was recorded being purchased by the Mattei family.

b. the Mattei family had a long-standing quarrel with the artist.

c. an 1801 sale shows that the Mattei family deliberately obscured the origin of the painting.

d. it was purchased by a Scottish collector at a time when Caravaggio’s work was unpopular.



a. a similar painting was recorded being purchased by the Mattei family.


Why this answer?

For TOEFL detail questions, look to where in the passage the question is pointing you. In this case, that’s paragraph two. Hopefully, you took notes as you read along (if you don’t, do it next time!) Otherwise, you can go back now and quickly extrapolate and summarize the main points of the paragraph: Mattei was found to have recorded the purchase of a similar painting, which he attributed to Caravaggio, but Caravaggio later fell out of favor. Skim your answer choices and find the best match; in this case, that’s A.


Why not the other answers?

If you look over the other answers, they all have something slightly wrong with them: sometimes very slightly. For example, we do not, and cannot know, if the Mattei family “deliberately” obscured the origins of the painting, from what the passage tells us. Similarly, other answer choices don’t actually answer the question. Remember, we’re looking for a reason that the painting was most likely done by Caravaggio; so the fact that a Scottish collector bought it is not entirely relevant to answering this question.


Additional Information about TOEFL Detail Questions

Detail questions ask you about information that’s specifically stated in a small part of the passage. They generally focus on the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “why” as explained by the author.

Detail questions usually take one of these formats:

According to Paragraph X, _____ occurred because…

According to Paragraph X, which is true of ____?

The author’s description of _____ mentions which of the following?

There are two major traps that people fall into on detail questions. Both of them can be avoided if you’re careful not to choose an answer simply because it contains key words from the passage. The first trap is to choose a true statement that was contained in the passage, but that doesn’t answer the question.

The second mistake people make is to accidentally choose an answer that contains a lot of words from the passage, but actually states a different idea or changes the relationships between things (for example, “sleeping makes me happy” is very different from “happiness makes me sleep”).

As you saw, both traps are in play in the example question I showed you today.

How can I use this practice in my test-day strategy?

To score high on the TOEFL, make sure that, when approaching passages, you don’t fall into the traps of reading too much into the passage—or not reading answer choices carefully enough (as with the answer about the “deliberate” nature of the Mattei family’s actions above). Also, double-check your answer before entering it to make sure that it actually answers the question. Even though it’s true according to the passage, it still may not be the correct answer to this particular question.

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