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July 10, 2014

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

Father Marius Zerafa in Amelia before the conference
by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Amelia, Umbria -- The Reverend Dr. Marius Zerafa spoke on “The Theft and Ransom of Caravaggio’s St. Jerome Writing from the Co-Cathedral of St. John” at ARCA’s Sixth Annual Interdisciplinary Art Crime Conference on June 28. Father Zerafa, a Dominican priest and the former Curator and Director of the Malta Museums, spent almost a year negotiating with the thieves to recover the painting taken on New Year's Eve in 1984.

“At times it was easier to deal with the Mafia, than with Ministers and Monsignori …” Father Zerafa said, quoting himself from his book, “Caravaggio – Diaries (Transcribed and edited by Catherine Sinclair Galea, Grimand Company Limited, Malta, 2004).

Father Zerafa and the rescued work
Father Zerafa said that the taped ransom demand was in Maltese and the voice threatened to blow something up: “It was quite frightening.” At first, he told the audience, he did not involve the police but recorded his conversations with the mafia. They sent him five pieces of the painting which had a special kind of relining and a photograph of a coffee pot on top of the painting. After eight months of delaying tactics, Father Zerafa said he informed the police and the phone calls were traced to a show factory. "The painting had gone to Italy, then they brought it back once we told them that we had the money," Father Zerafa said. It was damaged and in need of restoration so he arranged a military plane to take the painting to Rome for repairs. After it was exhibited in Rome, the painting was returned to Malta and Father Zerafa, an admirer of Caravaggio, painted a copy of it.

Father Zerafa with his version of Caravaggio's St. Jerome
Fr. Marius J. Zerafa was born in Vittoriosa, Malta, on 13th October 1929, the son of Joseph Zerafa M.B.E and Maria (nee Boffa), and nephew of Sir Paul Boffa Kt., O.B.E., M.D., Prime Minister of Malta. He started education at the Government Primary School till Class III, when, at the age of 9, he entered the Malta Lyceum. With the encouragement of Dun Gorg Preca he joined the Dominican Order in 1945. He spent three years at the Dominican House of Studies in Rabat and was then sent to “Hawkesyard”, Staffordshire, and later to “Blackfriars”, Oxford (1948-1952). He went to Rome (1952-54) where he obtained his S.Th.B. and Dip.Sc.Soc. He returned to Rome for another two years and obtained his Lectorate and Licentiate in Sacred Theology and a Doctorate in Social Sciences. He also attended the State University in Rome and obtained a Diploma in Art History. Later he also obtained a B.A. Hons. Degree in Art History from the University of London. He also followed courses at the Sorbonne and at the Ecole de Louvre, Paris, (1963 and 1966); at the University of Florence (1965 and 1968); at the Brera, Milan, and at the Fondazione Cini, Venice, (1965). Working on a thesis for the Degree of D.Litt. at Florence University.

Father Zerafa with his copy of the Angelico 'Annunciation'
In 1962 he was elected Associate of the Royal Historical Society, London. He is a member of the Accademia Tiberina and was awarded the French Decoration “Chevalier dans l`Ordre des Arts et des Lettres”, the Russian “Order of Lomonosov” “Insignia of Merit” and the “Union Federation Medal” by the Russian Parliament, and the Florence “Beato Angelico” Medal. He has recently been awarded the Gold Medal and Dipoma by the Malta Society of Arts. He is also Knight of Grace, O.S.J.

Fr Zerafa was awarded Art Scholarships by the Italian Government on the occasion of Malta`s Independence and again in 1968. He visited museums in the United States on an International Visitors Program; worked at the Louvre, Paris, on a Council of Europe Fellowship; had a British Council Grant in 1967 and a German Government Bursary sponsored by Inter Nationes. He was also invited to the Soviet Union as Co-Founder of the Maltese-Soviet Friendship Society.

Fr Zerafa was Secretary and Senior History and Literature Master at St Albert`s College, Valletta, (1954-62); Professor of Social Philosophy and Sacred Art at the Dominican House of Studies, Rabat; Lecturer in Sociology in the Pastoral Course for the Clergy; Examiner in Sociology at the University of Malta; Lecturer in History and Appreciation of Art at the Malta School of Art; Lecturer in Sacred Art at the Major Seminary; at I.N.S.E.R.M.; Lecturer in Art Appreciation at St Edward`s College; Also taught English Literature and Art History at St Teresa monastery, Cospicua. He also lectured regularly, mainly on Art, at the British Council Centre, the Italian Istituto di Cultura, the Alliance Francaise and other cultural centres. For many years he was sub-editor of “Scientia” and Archivist of the Maltese Dominican Province. While studying in Florence, he was encouraged by Prof G LaPira, ex mayor of the City, to set up an Art Centre at S Marco, but had to return to Malta for family reasons.

Fr Zerafa joined the Museums Department in 1970 as Assistant Curator of Fine Arts and was responsible for the setting up of the National Museum of Fine Arts, Valletta and the Museum of Contemporary Art at St Julian`s. He became Curator of Fine Arts in 1975 and Director of Museums in 1981. He was responsible for the opening of a number of museums in Malta and Gozo. During this period he was involved in the recovery of the painting “St Jerome” by Caravaggio after eight months` personal contact with the thieves.

Fr Zerafa has been invited to lecture at the Smithsonian, Washington; at Fordham University, New York; at the American University, Rome; at the Dominican Curia Generalizia, Rome; at Aspen Museum, Colorado; at the Moscow State University; at the Academy for Contemporary Art, Moscow; at the Academy for Design, Togliattigrad; at the Preti Museum, Taverna; at Budapest Museum, etc. He has taken part in International conferences in Quebec, Tunis, etc and has helped organize art exhibitions in London, Paris, Moscow, Palermo, etc.

He was Chairman of Government and other committees and until his recent resignation was Chairman of the Archdiocesan Commission for Sacred Art. He is a member of the Dominican Commission for Preaching through Art. He is also a member of the Penitentiary at S Maria Maggiore, Rome. Fr Zerafa retired from the Museums Department at the age of 61. He is now lecturer in Sacred Art at the Angelicum University, Rome. He is also “Aquinas Visiting Scholar” at Toronto University, Canada. He lectures at Cultural centres in Malta, and often leads groups of students on cultural tours abroad. He has restored works by Mattia Preti, Favray, and other Masters.

His own paintings and sculptures are to be found in churches and collections in Malta and abroad. An exhibition of his works and projects was held at Gallery G in December 2007.

Publications: “Developments in the doctrine of private property” (Rome, 1945); “The Genesis of Marx`s realist interpretation of History” (Rome, 1962); “Caravaggio Diaries” (Malta, 2004) [Being translated into Italian and Russian]; “Memories” (In preparation). Contributions to the Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Art, Florence: to Thieme Becker, Berlin: and other publications. Recreations: The Arts, reading, travelling. Sports: Walking, Canoeing, Judo.