Showing posts with label The Palermo Nativity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Palermo Nativity. Show all posts

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.

July 3, 2015

Further Information about Palermo's stolen Caravaggio Nativity painting

Caravaggio, "Nativity with Saint Lawrence
and Saint Francis"
For further reading on the ARCA Blog about Caravaggio's "Nativity with Saint Lawrence and Saint Francis" stolen from a church in Palermo in 1969:

Judith Harris, "Breaking News on the Stolen Caravaggio Nativity", December 18, 2009;

Catherine Schofield Sezgin, "More confirmation of old news? Pietro Grasso, head of the anti-Mafia crime unit, confirms in May that Caravaggio's Nativity of Palermo eaten by pigs", May 10, 2012;

Sezgin, "Revisiting books: Peter Watson on the Palermo Nativity in the 1984 book The Caravaggio Conspiracy", May 14, 2012;

Sezgin, "Revisiting books: Watson's The Caravaggio Conspiracy and the motive for stealing the Palermo Nativity",  May 16, 2012;

Sezgin, "Revisiting books: An Earthquake Shatters Expectations in The Caravaggio Conspiracy", May 18, 2012;

Laura Fandino, "ARCA 2013 Conference: James Moore on the stolen Palermo Nativity by Caravaggio ...", August 25, 2013;

In regards to a theft of another Caravaggio painting:

Sezgin, "Rev. Dr. Marius Zerafa Spoke on "The Theft and Ransom of Caravaggio's "St. Jerome Writing", Co-Cathedral of St. John" at ARCA's Sixth Annual Interdisciplinary Art Crime Conference" July 10, 2014;

Sezgin, "Father Zerafa's recommended reading on Caravaggio's Stolen Palermo Nativity -- and his memory of visiting the painting in the S Lorenzo Chapel",  July 17, 2014.

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.

July 17, 2014

Father Zerafa's recommended reading on Caravaggio's Stolen Palermo Nativity -- and his memory of visiting the painting in the S Lorenzo Chapel

Father Zerafa receiving an award in
the S Lorenzo chapel in Palermo
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

After downloading Daniel Silva's recent mystery which involves a fictional attempt to recover Caravaggio's Palermo Nativity, I emailed Father Marius Zerafa to ask him if he'd be reading Silva's thriller. With his permission, I am reprinting his response:
Unfortunately, I have not read the book you mentioned. A good book I would suggest is Peter Watson's The Caravaggio Conspiracy. This is not fiction. It is the story of a serious journalist who tries to contact the Mafia about the Palermo Caravaggio. At one time he is even told the Mafia had 'another Caravaggio in mind' which could easily have been our 'St Jerome'. 
While looking for the Palermo Caravaggio he discovers a number of paintings, stolen and exported illegally. A very interesting book. 'A must' for anyone interested in art thefts. 
As regards my personal interest in the Palermo Caravaggio, I can say that I had seen the original 'Nativity'. This was about 50 years ago and I had gone to Palermo just to see it. The S Lorenzo chapel was not safe at all. I remember knocking at a house next to the chapel and an old lady came and opened the chapel. I remember I was very impressed by the style of the painting (rather different from the other Sicilian works) and also by the strong contrast between the white Serpotta stuccoes and the dark Caravaggio painting. 
Father Zerafa and the S Lorenzo association
Since then I've been to Palermo practically every year. There is an Association, run by a very dedicated young man. They run the S Lorenzo chapel and they organize lectures, etc., associated with The Nativity. They even encourage artists to paint their own versions of the Nativity. I have been asked a number of times to lecture there, they have even awarded me their medal. 
I am sending you a couple of photos you may find of some interest. 
I did find the photos interesting and have included them here, then I ordered Watson's The Caravaggio Conspiracy from an independent bookstore (it's also available in many public libraries). And here is the December 2013 article published by BBC written by Alastair Cooke, the art critic for The Daily Telegraph on the Palermo Nativity. And here's a 2005 article by Peter Robb in The Telegraph, "Will we ever see it again?" which offers a compelling narrative on the Palermo Nativity theft.

And for Gabriel Allon fans, here's a link to Daniel Silva promoting his book on The Today Show.

July 12, 2014

Daniel Silva's new fictional book "The Heist" begins with a promise to reveal the fate of Caravaggio's "The Nativity" stolen in 1969 from a church in Palermo

Caravaggio's Nativity (Palermo)
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Daniel Silva, author of 14 books featuring the art restorer-Israeili assassin Gabriel Alon, features the theft of Caravaggio's Nativity in his new book, The Heist, to be published July 15. The book begins with:
On October 18, 1969, Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence vanished from the Oratorio di San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily. The Nativity, as it is commonly known, is one of Caravaggio’s last great masterworks, painted in 1609 while he was a fugitive from justice, wanted by papal authorities in Rome for killing a man during a swordfight. For more than four decades, the altarpiece has been the most sought-after stolen painting in the world, and yet its exact whereabouts, even its fate, have remained a mystery. Until now…
In 2009, Judith Harris wrote for the ARCABlog about "breaking news" on the stolen Caravaggio Palmero Nativity that the mafia, who allegedly had stolen the painting, had destroyed the painting through neglect. Another source in 2012 also claimed that the painting had been eaten by pigs.

British author Peter Watson wrote in The Caravaggio Conspiracy that if it weren't for an earthquake he might have been able to recover Caravaggio's Nativity in 1980. Here's a link to Watson's description of Italy's famous art investigator, Rodolfo Siviero.

James Moore, a retired trial lawyer and a student of art history, presented on the theft of Caravaggio's The Nativity from Palermo at the 2013 ARCA Conference in Amelia.

Daniel Silva's 2009 book, The Defector, featured a bakery in Amelia (the Umbrian town north of Rome which hosts ARCA's Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Preservation).

Tanya Lervik, an ARCA Alum, listened to Daniel Silva speak in Washington D.C. last year on his last Gabriel Allon book, The English Girl.

August 25, 2013

ARCA 2013 Conference: James Moore on the stolen Palermo Nativity by Caravaggio; James Bond on the book theft from the Biltmore House; and Judith Harris on the private collecting appetite for looted antiquities

James "Alex" Bond (left), Rene Du Terroil (rear),
 Judith Harris (center), and James Moore (right)
by Laura Fandino, ARCA Intern
In the second panel of ARCA’s  5th conference, presenters James Moore and James "Alex" Bond walked us through two events that made their way into the art crime world: The mysterious theft of Caravaggio’s masterpiece, The Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence, and  the successful recovery of 90 books from the Biltmore’s House in Ashville, North Carolina. Following their presentations and discussions, journalist Judith Harris spoke on the continuing of private collecting of illicit art and archaeology, despite - and in part consequent to - today's more rigorous policies of provenance in acquisitions at auctions and by museums. The panel was moderated by Rene M. du Terroil who currently directs the internationalization initiative for the Italian and Spanish campuses of the Instituto Europeo di Design (IED).
James Moore opened up the panel with an illustrated discussion in which he narrated the events which led to the second most famous theft in the history of art crime, the theft of The Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence in 1969 in Palermo, Sicily. He began his presentation speaking about Caravaggio, the artist who gave life to the stunning painting of the Nativity. Caravaggio is a well-known Italian artist who at very early age managed to achieve artistic success and fame. At the age of twenty Caravaggio began a career as an artist and then went on to produce many now-famous masterpieces.
Caravaggio’s successful artistic career, emphasized Moore, was the product of his refusal to follow the conventional artistic styles of the time, focusing rather on realistic, naturalistic and symbolist detail condensed into the most vivid biblical scenes.  His artistic fame, regrettably, was always accompanied by his “irascibility and an unpredictable and violent temper,” which eventually led to a homicide in Rome for which he was found guilty. Caravaggio escaped gaol, however, and fled to Naples, Malta and Sicily.  In 1609, while he was in Sicily he painted the Saint Lawrence Nativity for the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo.

The theft of the Nativity took place in October 1969. On the day of the heist, the thieves entered the oratory through what Moore called a “poorly locked side door” and then cut the painting out of its frame.  After 44 years of waiting for the return of one of Caravaggio’s greatest masterpieces, Moore wondered, “Is there any hope that the painting will be found?” Sadly, none of explanations for the crime have produced any significant information on the whereabouts of the painting that today is valued at more than $20 million, yet Moore remains hopeful as he invites us to recall the recovery of The Taking of Christ, another of Caravaggio’s master works, after 100 years of absence.

In the presentation, "Heritage Collecting: Image, Passion and the Law,"  Journalist Judith Harris described the act of collecting as an “innately human passion” initially performed as a  “sport of kings,” whose prestige later placed it on the agenda of merchants and bankers, among others. Such activity, say sociologists who have analyzed the passion for collecting, is shaped by the surrounding cultural processes, which increase the collectors' desire for the halo prestige which ownership brings.
The theft oft Bellini's 15th C. Madonna with Child  in 1993,  the purchase of important Italian antiquities by an unknown New York collector, and the recent mysterious discovery near Rome of an ancient Egyptian sphinx in an abandoned greenhouse, ready for shipment, exemplify the essential but problematic question of “Who is buying it?” According to Harris, the dark side of collecting is that the passion of the private collector continues to foster looting despite the security measures of museums and auction houses.

According to experts in the field, stated Harris, this continuing illegal traffic in antiquities for private collections reflects in part the lack of a census of minor pieces of art, including in many public collections. In addition, the mediocre and rather incomplete inventories of many libraries and public museum storage areas in Italy have contributed to the disappearance of valuable works. The Bibliotecadei Girolamini, an important library in Naples, was looted of some 4,000 books; its director is blamed for the theft. Altogether, circa 1,500 books - some dating from the Middle Ages - were sold or given to private collectors. Among them was an Italian politician, Marcello Dell’Utri.  

Finally, Harris directed us towards the Art Collecting Legal Handbook, a compendium of comparative legislation on collecting in twenty-eight different countries. Particularly interesting are the Handbook's comparisons of legal norms for “due diligence.” Authors Bruno Boesch and Massimo Sterpi underscore the importance of this today: “Collectors, private and public, need to know where they stand in law... Private collectors need to grapple with the complexity of the eventual transfer of collections of far greater financial value than ever before.”

April 13, 2013

Francisco Goya's 1978 "Witches in Air" is subject of auction house theft in Danny Boyle's fictional film "Trance"

Francisco Goya's Witches in Air, 1798
Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

In Danny Boyle's fictional movie, Trance, Francisco Goya's $25 million painting is stolen during an auction in a choreographed heist. One of the thieves, Simon (James McAvoy), works at the auction house. Simon betrays his accomplices before a bump on his head precedes a case of amnesia. Rosario Dawson is the hypnotherapist and Vincent Cassel (who played an art thief in Oceans 13) is the criminal boss applying the pressure on the bewildered lad with the big blue eyes and Scottish brogue to recall where he hid the stolen painting.

In reality, Goya's Witches in Air is owned by the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain. The 1798 oil painting is not on display:

Three bare-chested characters wearing dunce caps hold a fourth, nude character in the air while another lies on the floor, covering his ears, A sixth figure flees, his head covered with a white cloth. With his hand, he makes the gesture intended to protect him from the evil eye. At the right of the scene, a donkey stands out against the neutral background.
This was one of six canvases Goya sold to the Duke and Duchess of Osuna in 1798, as decoration for their country house in La Alameda. They are linked to the etchings from his Caprichos series, in which he presented scenes of witches and witchcraft similar to this one.
This painting was acquired by the Prado Museum in 1999 with funds from the Villaescusa legacy.
The film also includes references to Rembrandt's "Sea of Galilee" stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 (the whereabouts of Dutch master's only seascape is publicly unknown) and an imagined room of "lost paintings" including Caravaggio's Nativity (stolen from a church in Palermo in 1969 and rumored to have been eaten by pigs).

May 18, 2012

REVISITING BOOKS: An Earthquake Shatters Expectations in The Caravaggio Conspiracy

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA blog editor

Peter Watson writes in The Caravaggio Conspiracy that in 1980 when he was trying to negotiate the purchase of Caravaggio's Palermo Nativity that going to southern Italy with a 'briefcase full of cash' was considered dangerous. Watson wrote:
This was the time in Italy when kidnapping was increasing alarmingly.  In fact the risk of kidnap was so great that even going to Naples simply as a businessman was not without danger.  The proportion of foreign visitors to the city had slumped from 50 percent of hotel business to less than 10 percent.  Furthermore, a report had shown that murders by the Mafia at that time accounted for 29 percent of all killings, as opposed to 13 percent a decade before.
Watson was offered the painting in London by a member of the gang art detective Rodolfo Siviero had suspected of stealing the Palermo Nativity.  Watson received a phone call from Italy that he could have the Caravaggio painting for 150 million Italian lire or $150,000 American dollars.  The journalist booked three nights at the Excelsior in Naples to conduct the transaction.

In nearby Laviano, Watson was presented with two photographs of the painting:
It looked terrible.  It was very dark, darker than I had imagined it could look.  Bits appeared to have flaked off near the heads of the onlookers on the right of the painting and there was a patch, of damp or oil or whatever, in the right foreground covering the ankle and hand of St. Lawrence.  Worst of all there was a ragged crack, about a third of the way up, bisecting the Virgin's hands and penetrating St. Lawrence's shoulder.  That seemed consonant with the canvas having been rolled for some time, possibly immediately after it had been stolen.
Watson is told that the painting is in Sicily but that it can be brought to Naples in a few days.  Then a deadly and destructive earthquake leveled Laviano. Watson was unable to contact with his negotiators and any hope of purchasing the stolen painting vanished.

May 16, 2012

REVISITING BOOKS: Watson's "The Caravaggio Conspiracy" and the motive for stealing the Palermo Nativity

Agrigento Ephebe
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA blog editor

Part two of three

In the 1984 book, The Caravaggio Conspiracy, published by British journalist Peter Watson, Rodolfo Siviero is described as a the leading detective of stolen art in Italy.

Before Caravaggio's Nativity was stolen in 1969, Siviero had been working to recover art misplaced since World War II.  Siviero was 'an undercover agent in German-occupied Italy', Watson reported, and was 'head of the Italian Secret Service attached to the Allied Command.'  Part of his job was to oversee the protection of works of art, Watson explained.  When Siviero became the first Italian ambassador to Germany after the war, he used wartime records to look for paintings looted by the Nazis from the Uffizi, Watson wrote, and listed works Siviero helped to recover: Bronzino's Deposition of Christ, Antonio Pollaiuolo's Labors of Hercules; Domenico Feti's Parable of the Vine; a self-portrait by Lorenzo di Credi, a Nativity by a pupil of Correggio; Botticelli's Primavera and Paolo Uccello's The Battle of San Remo.

When Siviero returned to Italy, he was put in charge of the Delegation for the Recovery of Missing Works of Art (Watson).  He recovered works of art not related to war looting.  Watson wrote that Siviero recovered a fifth century B.C. bronze statue known of a boy known as the Ephebus from the Mafia in a sting operation.  Siviero posed as the "nephew" of a Florentine art gallery that would purchase objects without asking questions about ownership.  The bronze was recovered, Watson wrote, and six men arrested shortly before Caravaggio's Nativity was stolen.  "It was the Mafia's way of exacting revenge.  And this time, it was whispered, Siviero would not see the stolen work of art again.  Ever." (Watson)

This article concludes on May 18.

May 14, 2012

REVISITING BOOKS: Peter Watson on the Palermo Nativity in the 1984 book "The Caravaggio Conspiracy"

The Palermo Nativity
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Part one of three

Repeated rumors of the destruction of Caravaggio's painting, Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco, reminded me of Peter Watson's telling of how an earthquake in southern Italy interupted his attempts to recover the painting ten years after it was stolen from a chapel in Sicily.

Watson's 1984 book, The Caravaggio Conspiracy (Doubleday), documents the journalist's cooperation with 'Italy's greatest art detective', Rodolfo Sievero, to recover The Nativity in 1979.  Watson, a British journalist, and Sievero, who at the time was 'an Italian diplomat' who headed 'a small section of the Italian Foreign Office exclusively concerned with the recovery of stolen art', concocted a plan to get one of Siviero's suspects in the theft of The Nativity to offer the Caravaggio or another stolen painting to Watson.

In the eighth chapter of the book, Watson sympathetically describes Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio as a maverick painter whose erratic behavior and subsequent criminal record may have been the result of an illness contracted in his early years in Rome.  "Caravaggio's approach to his art -- conveying miraculous biblical episodes through vividly real but otherwise ordinary people, revolutionized painting," Watson wrote.

As an aside, I point out that in his summary of Caravaggio's career, Watson highlights the contribution after 1590 of one of the painter's supporters who originated from Amelia, home to ARCA's summer program and its International Art Conference:
A certain Monsignor Petrignani provided him with a room -- it was hardly a studio -- and Caravaggio began to turn out many pictures.  The younger painter enjoyed this work more, but though he was prolific he was not successful.  The arrangement eventually bore fruit, however, through the good offices of an art dealer named Valentino who had exhibited paintings by Caravaggio and finally succeeded in selling several of them to Cardinal del Monte.
The 16th century Palazzo Petrignani hosted the 2010 International Art Crime Conference in Amelia.

In 1609, running from knights and friends of a man who died by the painter's sword, Caravaggio painted what Watson describes as the "Adoration of the Child with St. Francis and St. Lawrence" (also  known as the "Palermo Nativity") in the church of the Oratorio of San Lorenzo in Palermo. Watson wrote:
It is an unusual painting for Caravaggio: it almost seems that the events of the preceding months were beginning to catch up with him.  It is still a Caravaggio but it is as if he had begun to doubt his own vision.  The peasants watching the event are in the old, familiar style.  They are ordinary, balding, tired rather shabby people lost in wonder.  But Mary particularly is a more stylized figure: her features are regular, smooth, her skin is like marble.  There is even an angel descending from on high.  Some sort of change appeared to be coming over Caravaggio.... Whoever had stolen it had taken more than an object; he had deprived the world of a sign of change in the mind -- the somewhat unstable mind -- of a great man.
Caravaggio's eight foot by seven foot painting of the Nativity served as the altarpiece for the Baroque chapel of the Oratory of San Lorenzo for 359 years until it had been "hacked" "out of its splendid frame with a razor blade," Watson wrote.

A few weeks after the theft, Siviero, Watson wrote, had received a message that the theft had been revenge for what Siviero had done 'to the Mafia over the Ephebus in Foligno."

Part two continued on May 16.