18 October 2021

Theft of Caravaggio masterpiece

Fate of Nativity taken from Palermo church remains a mystery

Caravaggio's painting Nativity with St Lawrence and St Francis
Caravaggio's painting Nativity with
St Lawrence and St Francis
One of the most notorious art crimes in history was discovered on this day in 1969 when a housekeeper at the Oratory of Saint Lawrence in Palermo arrived for work to find that the Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, painted by the Renaissance master Caravaggio in 1609, had been stolen.

The painting sat above the altar in the Oratory, which is situated in Via Immacolata in the centre of the Sicilian capital, adjacent to the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, but when the housekeeper, Maria Gelfo, opened up with her sister on the morning of 18 October, they were confronted with an empty frame.

Worth an estimated £20 million (€23.73 million; $27.52 million), the painting has never been found, leaving half a century’s worth of theories about its fate to remain unproven.  Most of the theories link the theft to the Sicilian Mafia.

It is assumed that the painting was taken during the night of the 17-18 October, although the weather was reportedly awful, with a lightning storm raging for much of the night and Palermo suffering a deluge of rain, hardly ideal conditions for carrying a valuable work of art from a church to a waiting vehicle.

The thieves broke into the Oratory and seemingly headed straight for the Caravaggio. The painting appeared to have been cut from its frame using a sharp blade. Maria Gelfo also told police that a rug was also missing, which led to speculation that the canvas was removed from the church rolled up inside the rug.

The empty frame above the altar,  pictured soon after the theft
The empty frame above the altar, 
pictured soon after the theft
Yet what happened to the painting is shrouded in mystery, not least because files containing statements made to police by key witnesses mysteriously disappeared, along with a report on the state of the premises ordered after Benedetto Rocco, the parish priest at the time of the theft, had raised concerns about security with the local state official for works of art, Vincenzo Scuderi.

Rocco had also raised concerns about Scuderi allowing RAI, the state broadcaster, to film a programme on hidden treasures inside the oratory - including Caravaggio’s painting - which was broadcast in August 1969. 

Gelfo, meanwhile, had expressed her worries about the security of a street-level window that could have been forced by an intruder, as well as reporting an unusually large number of strangers wanting to see the Caravaggio in the weeks leading up to its disappearance.

When the investigation into the crime was reopened in 2017 by the government’s anti-Mafia commission, following supposedly credible information supplied by Mafia pentiti Marino Mannoia and Gaetano Grado, the statements from Rocco and Gelfo had vanished.

Mannoia and Grado said that the painting was in Switzerland, albeit having been cut up, after Mafia boss Gaetano Badalamenti, who had made his money from trafficking heroin to the United States and had supposedly commissioned its theft, decided he no longer wanted it on his hands. The involvement of Badalamenti tallied with an interview given by Rocco in 2001 in which he claimed that Badalamenti was the perpetrator and had attempted to open a negotiation with the Catholic Church for its return, cutting off a small section of the canvas and sending it to Rocco to prove he had it.

Gaetano Badalamenti, a Mafia boss accused of ordering the theft
Gaetano Badalamenti, a Mafia
boss accused of ordering the theft
However, the police were unable to find the files relating to the crime, including Rocco’s statements. Rocco, Gelfo and Badalamenti are all now dead.

Mannoia had previously told the anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone that the Mafia had commissioned the theft after agreeing a price with a buyer, but that when the buyer saw the painting, it was so badly damaged he called the deal off.  Experts have since said that, had the painting been rolled up to be smuggled out inside a rug, it is likely that large amounts of paint would have cracked and fallen off.

Other explanations of its fate are that the painting was eaten by pigs after being kept in a barn, that it was buried by another mafioso, Gerlando Alberti, after he had failed to sell it, and that it was transported to Campania to be sold to the Naples Camorra only to be buried under rubble during the 1980 earthquake.

Another theory, put forward by a Mafia expert in Palermo, is that the theft was actually carried out by highly-skilled professional art thieves working independently of the local Mafia and that the multiple claims of Cosa Nostra responsibility were false, issued somewhat in panic by local gang bosses embarrassed that a crime of such magnitude had taken place under their noses without their knowledge. 

Detail from Giacomo Serpotta's stucco work in the Oratory
Detail from Giacomo Serpotta's
stucco work in the Oratory
Travel tip:

The Oratory of Saint Lawrence was founded in around 1570 by the Company of Saint Francis of Assisi, a baroque church built over the remnants of an ancient church dedicated to Saint Lawrence (San Lorenzo). It is located in the La Kalsa or Tribunali district of Palermo near Corso Vittorio Emanuele, next door to the basilica of Saint Francis (San Francesco d'Assisi).  In addition to Caravaggio’s masterpiece, the setting of which, above the altar, is now occupied by a reproduction of the original, the Oratory is also notable for the brilliant stucco decorations by Giacomo Serpotta, born in the neighbourhood but considered by many to be one of Sicily’s greatest artists.

Palermo's beautiful cathedral, viewed across the its square in the Monte di Pietà district of the city
Palermo's beautiful cathedral, viewed across the
its square in the Monte di Pietà district of the city
Travel tip:

Although the Mafia have long cast an unwanted shadow over Palermo, thankfully most visitors know it as an attractive tourist destination, a vibrant city with a wealth of history, culture, art, music and food. It has many outstanding restaurants as well as fine examples of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque churches, palaces and buildings.  Attractions include the extraordinary Cappella Palatina, featuring Byzantine mosaics decorated with gold leaf and precious stones, the Teatro Massimo, the largest opera house in Italy and the third biggest in Europe, and a beautiful cathedral that blends Norman, Moorish, Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical styles.  Although the Sicilian Baroque style is strongly represented in the city’s architecture, the streets around Via Libertà and the seaside resort of Mondello, just outside the city, feature many examples of Stile Liberty, the Italian variant on Art Nouveau, in villas built for the well-to-do of Palermo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Also on this day: 

1634: The birth of painter Luca Giordano

1833: The birth of entrepreneur Cristoforo Benigno Crespi

1933: The birth of racing driver Ludovico Scarfiotti

The Feast Day of St Luke the Evangelist


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