|Caravaggio, Nativity with Saint Lawrence|
and Saint Francis, 268 x 197 cm
by Judith Harris
ROME - No U.S. post office has displayed the Holy Family in its rogues’ gallery of most wanted, but a Nativity scene painted by Caravaggio has had FBI star billing on its list of the “Top Ten Art Crimes” longer than any other work of art in history.
Caravaggio’s large altarpiece, the Nativity with Saint Lawrence and Saint Francis, valued at $20 million, was stolen forty years ago from the unguarded Oratory of San Lorenzo, a confraternity hall in Palermo. Persistent rumors had the paintings in the hands of the Mafia, and not long ago the former chief of the Carabinieri crack art squad hypothesized that it was “still somewhere in an attic.”
In mid-2009, so-called pentiti, or “repentant” mafiosi, began making fresh revelations to Sicilian magistrates who were investigating other crimes, and one convicted mobster admitted physically removing the painting from above the altar. This December a second turncoat named Gaspare Spatuzza told investigators that during meetings of the Cupola the Caravaggio Nativity would be propped up against a wall.
Now Spatuzza has also admitted learning in 1999 that the Caravaggio Nativity had been hidden at some point in the 1980’s in a barn where it was “ruined, eaten by rats and hogs, and therefore burned.” Spatuzza said he learned this in a prison conversation with the boss of his own murderous Palermo Mafia clan, Filippo Graviano. Spatuzza’s testimony is part of an ongoing trial in Florence where a court is trying to unravel the possible connections between government officials and the Mafia in 1993, when a bomb killed six near the Uffizi Gallery. The testimony is technically hearsay. Although Graviano, like Spatuzza in prison, has been ordered to give testimony before the Florentine court December 16, he is unlikely to confirm the story because the Caravaggio theft is not part of that inquiry. However, Palermo chief prosecutor Antonino Gatto has requested the transfer of Spatuzza’s testimony, signifying that a fresh inquiry has opened there. This would put any inquiry there under official state secrecy.
How reliable is Spatuzza? For the moment, no one is talking, in part because of the presumed new inquiry in Palermo, but also because, as the head of the DEA told this reporter many years ago, “We are not dealing with choir boys.” Spatuzza’s motives are obviously being questioned, as are his ongoing relations with the former bosses he still considers dear friends, the Graviano brothers. one hypothesis is that the Mafia bosses (at least some of them) in Sicily consider the Premier Silvio Berlusconi a burned out case—he is not by any means--, and are casting about for political patrons in Sicily. For this reason interest in the destiny of the Caravaggio has taken very much of a back seat.
Now, a backward view. In 1992 the supposedly pentito Mafia killer Giovanni Brusco told a judge that he had personally tried to negotiate with the Italian State over the return of the Caravaggio Nativity in a swap for more lenient conditions for convicted mafiosi. Several years ago yet another pentito, Salvatore Cangemi, alleged that the Mafia still possessed the Caravaggio, which was put on view as a trophy at meetings of the top bosses of Cosa Nostra, the Cupola.
On the basis of other statements by pentiti, at least a partial reconstruction can be made. The first to speak of the stolen painting was Francesco Marino Mannoia, a particularly cruel Mafia boss who confessed in 1996 to having been among those who stole the painting in 1969. Mannoia said that he had used a razor blade to remove it from its frame and had then rolled it up (or perhaps had folded it), and had taken it to the unnamed individual who had ordered the theft. But when consignment was to be made, Mannoia said, the sponsor refused it because the painting had been damaged during transport. At that point, according to Mannoia, he destroyed the painting. Mannoia now lives in the US as a protected witness.
Investigative reporter Peter Watson then said that in late 1980 he received an offer for the painting from an individual at Laviano, near Salerno, but that the earthquake in the Irpinia interrupted the contact and that he presumed the painting was destroyed.
However, in 2001, according to General Roberto Conforti, who at that time still headed the crack Carabinieri art squad he had founded, “We were searching a farm near Palermo after we were given a ‘tip’ that the work was hidden under a cement cover—but then nothing,” he told Paolo Conti of Corriere della Sera in an interview published on August 24 2004.
A Sicilian press report also alleged that Carabinieri there reported at least three attempts made after the Irpinia earthquake to sell the painting. This might explain why the now retired General Conforti told the reporter from Corriere della Sera in 2004 that he believed the Caravaggio still existed in or near Palermo, perhaps “forgotten in the attic of some old lady who doesn’t know its worth.”
In 2005 the Australian reporter Peter Robb alleged that Mannoia had made a mistake, and that the canvas Mannois was referring to was not the Caravaggio at all.
According to Spatuzza, the canvas had been given to the clan of Gianbattista Pullara and his brothers in Palermo, who hid it in the barn where it was damaged and finally burned as a result.
This is unlikely to be the last such theft. Although top-flight works by Old Masters are hard to place on the international market, thefts of both works of art and archaeology (and especially the latter) are on the rise: the crackdown on international financial transactions following the Twin Towers tragedy has made works of art the material for hostage-like barter in cross-border swaps of arms and drugs, in place of cash, according to investigators here.
The brilliant, temperamental artist was born as Michelangelo Merisi in the town of Caravaggio near Milan in 1571 and studied art under Titian. After his vile temper led him into a brawl with a police officer, he fled, penniless, from Milan for Rome. By then in his early twenties, he continued as a maverick in both art and life. On the one hand his theatrical paintings, precursors of the Baroque style that would become the hallmark of the Rome we see today, literally revolutionized the art world, and he was befriended by an aristocratic Venetian cardinal who became his patron, Francesco Del Monte, who also introduced Caravaggio to Galileo.
In 1606 the ever truculent Caravaggio got into yet another tavern brawl and ran his sword through a man. A warrant for his arrest and execution was pending, and so he fled from Rome. While hiding out in Malta in 1608, he painted the grisly Beheading of John the Baptist but then, after another move that same year, this time to Sicily, he softened, painting two large, touching Nativity scenes. These are a far cry from the glorified Nativity scenes of the Venetian artists. The lost Palermo Nativity shows a somewhat forlorn Madonna with Baby Jesus laid upon a kerchief on straw on the rough ground surrounded by barnyard animals and saints in the guise of shepherds. On the lightly sketched ceiling beams of the barn the wing of a floating angel cast in an ominous shadow hints at the future in the form of a cross.
Art and archaeological thefts are on the rise, according to investigators here, who say that the crackdown on international financial transactions following the Twin Towers tragedy has made works of art the material for hostage-like barter in cross-border swaps of arms and drugs, in place of cash.
Most fortunately the second Nativity scene Caravaggio painted in Sicily for a church in Messina is still intact and indeed has just been placed under restoration, visible to the public through a street-front window, inside a building attached to the Italian Parliament in Rome.