July 7, 2015

The Oratorio of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily: Where a stolen Caravaggio Nativity once hung above the altar

Street entrance to the Oratorio of San Lorenzo in Palermo
by Judge Arthur Tompkins

This post continues last week's post "Sicily, Palermo, Cicero, and a missing Caravaggio".

I found it.

Not, sadly, Caravaggio's Nativity. But the stunning Oratorio where it should hang.

The Oratorio of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily, is at Via Immacolatella, 3, next door to a larger church dedicated to Saint Francis, which overlooks a quiet piazza. It's a little tricky to find, a few streets back on the south side of Via Vittorio Emanuele, on the seaward side of both the main north-south roads, Via Marqueda and Via Roma, in the Old Town.

Just in case you're interested, the easiest route is to turn off Via Vittorio Emanuele into Via Alessandro Paternostro, then walk down this gently curving street until it opens into the small piazza. The Chiesa San Francesco is on your left, across the piazza, and the entrance to Via Immacolatella is in the far left corner: it heads back towards Via Vittorio Emanuele. You'll most likely need to keep your map close at hand as you untangle the labyrinth to find the front entrance.

Leafy courtyard of the Oratorio of San Lorenzo
Inside the entrance and up a few steps is a small leafy courtyard. You pay the modest entrance fee on the left (hang on to your ticket - it will get you free or reduced entrance to a list of other places, including the sombre and austere 12th century church of San Cataldo, with its distinctive three cupolas, just behind Piazza Pretoria) and then the door to the Oratorio is diagonally across the courtyard, in the far corner nearest the street.

Inside a vibrant rococo feast of Giacomo Serpotta baroque stucco work greets you, showing various scenes from the life of St Lawrence, culminating in his martyrdom atop a fiery brazier on the rear wall.

The copy of the stolen Caravaggio painting of the Nativity
But opposite that, in pride of place above the altar, hangs a full size replica of the stolen painting. Even as a copy, it dominates the rectangular room, the only break in the profusion of white and gilded stucco-work.

It remains a silent witness to a now decades-old theft, with little or no hope for the recovery of an original most likely now gone for ever.

Sources for further reading on the theft of Palermo's Caravaggio Nativity can be found here.


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