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Reading Practice: TOEFL Inference Question — 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.

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 inference 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.



Which of the following can be inferred about Gerard van Honthorst?

a. His work was considered more valuable than Caravaggio’s when they were alive.

b. His work is now considerably more popular than Caravaggio’s.

c. His work has historically commanded lower prices than Caravaggio’s has.

d. His work is similar to Caravaggio’s in style, though not in subject matter.



c. His work has historically commanded lower prices than Caravaggio’s has.


Why this answer?

For inference questions, you’ll need to return to the passage. Where in the passage? Well, it’ll help if you’ve taken notes as you’ve read through the passage the first time; however, here, you can also skim, because we’re looking for a proper noun: van Honthorst. We can find him in the third paragraph, which explains the difference in the prices of the two artists’ works: eight guineas “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.” Therefore, we can make the inference that Caravaggio’s works usually sold for more than van Honthorst’s did.


Why not the other answers?

A is incorrect, as we don’t have any information about the value of van Honthorst’s paintings during his lifetime (A). We also don’t know about the popularity of his work now—though the passage seems to indicate that actually, the opposite is true (B). Finally, though van Honthorst’s painting style was probably similar to Caravaggio’s, as one was mistaken for the other, the artists were also likely to use similar subject matter, as well, for this same reason (D).


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

Inference questions are tricky, but practicing before test day will help you get the hang of these “between the lines” questions. The most important thing to remember is that the inferences won’t be huge leaps from what’s written in the passage—they tend to be close to detail questions, but requiring another logical step. Don’t infer too much—particularly anything that’s out of the scope of the passage, that’s too extreme compared to what’s stated in the passage, or that distorts the information provided in the passage.