July 2, 2015

Sicily, Palermo, Cicero, and a missing Caravaggio ...

Cicero's bust in the Musei Capitolini
 ["Cicero - Musei Capitolini"
 by Glauco92 - Own work.
 Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
 via Wikimedia Commons].jpg
by Judge Arthur Tompkins

This year's visit to Ameliai, Umbria, for ARCA's Art Crime and Cultural Heritage course saw a visit, during a break in teaching duties, to Sicily. Apart from the obvious reasons to visit (I'd never been before, and it being a slightly mythical, Godfather-producing place, and all) two art crime-related reasons spurred my presence in the centuries old, culturally diverse, vibrant and slightly shambolic ancient metropolis. 

The first was that about 20 centuries ago, a Roman magistrate named Gaius Verres came to Palermo as governor. During an energetically corrupt, roughly two-year tenure, he managed to plunder and loot and steal his way through whole swathes of Sicilian culture and art and heritage.  

"Michelangelo Caravaggio, Nativity with
 San Francesco and San Lorenzo"

Fated ever to be the long suffering populace (in the coming centuries, they were to be ruled by - not necessary in this order, or at least always not in a lineally ordered sequence - the Romans, the Vandals, the Goths, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Normans, the Angevins and the Aragonese, the Bourbons, the Savoys, and finally, the Italians), Verres' larceny proved too much even for the stoical Sicilians. They hired a young and ambitious lawyer in Rome, one Marcus Tullius Cicero, to prosecute the erstwhile governor. And prosecute him Cicero did, vigorously and famously, in the Senate, by way of a series of speeches later known to history collectively as the Verrines. Such was the power of his prosecutorial oratory, after the first speech was delivered to a likely enthusiastic Roman crowd and Senate, Verres fled into exile. He never returned to Rome.

Cicero's Verrines have echoed down the centuries, as exemplars of oratory, of writing, of prosecutorial precedent and, coincidentally, of informative travel-writing. Conceptually, in part they embody and express a fundamental idea that underpins so much of our cultural heritage protection thinking now, the idea that art and culture and heritage belongs not just to the immediate possessor or the country in which accidental history consigns it, but to all humankind.

So I wanted to walk the same ground as had the notorious Gaius Verres, and which had occasioned Cicero's oratory.

Via Vittoria Emanuele, Palermo, Sicily [Arthur Tompkins].jpg
The second reason is that Palermo is the site of one of the great unsolved art crimes. In 1609 Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was on the run from the authorities in Rome. He had been Naples and in Malta, but in late 1608 he had washed up in Sicily. According to one account, he spent a year here, "sleeping fitfully with a dagger by his side, and painting several late [although I guess he would probably have thought of them as early to mid career] masterpieces".

One of them was the large and dramatic Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco. For about 350 years the canvas hung undisturbed above the altar in the Oratorio di San Lorenzo, just off the main Via Vittorio Emanuele in downtown Palermo.

Then in October 1969 it was stolen.  It has never been seen since. Varying accounts have it still in hiding somewhere, burnt, rotted, eaten by rats, or indeed fed to swine (by swine, one might think ...).

I wanted to see where it should still be.


Post a Comment