Caravaggio’s Nativity and the mystery of its disappearance – a metaphor for the city …

22 December, 2010


Caravaggio, the dramatic and now greatly admired Italian artist of the 16th and 17th centuries, was on the run when he painted the Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence in Palermo in 1609.  A year later he was dead. 

The painting he left behind, and the mystery of its disappearance has become a metaphor for the city: the work itself a powerful masterpiece, one of Sicily’s most valuable works of art; its disappearance, a tale of  darkness, intrigue and uncertainty. 

Until October 1969, this huge painting of the Nativity, 268cm x 197cm (8’10” x 6’6”), hung above the altar in the Oratorio of S. Lorenzo in via Immacolata di S. Francesco, a narrow street in Palermo’s historical centre.  At that time, the streets  surrounding the Oratorio were neglected, dark and virtually empty; the  power of the Mafia was strong.  The Oratorio opened only for Mass on Sundays, and the painting was virtually unprotected.  

  During the afternoon of Saturday 18 October, Maria Gelso, one of the women acting  as unofficial caretaker, went into the Oratorio as usual to make preparations for Mass the next morning.  She found everything  in disarray.  The silver crucifix which usually sat on the altar had been removed to a nearby chair, several candelabra were scattered here and there, and the wall above the altar, that huge space normally filled by the Nativity, was bare.   Strikingly empty! 

The following Monday, theft of the painting was headline news in the two local papers.  Both contained lengthy criticisms of the lack of protection that was afforded to the city’s cultural heritage.  The thieves, they said,  had had the easiest access to the Oratorio via a secondary door that opened onto the street a metre from the ground and “wouldn’t resist the push of a baby.”  All that was needed was to lift the latch with a blade.  That entrance is now heavily barred, but the wooden doors that can still be seen behind the bars certainly don’t look strong. 

The papers also noted that no-one really knew when the painting had been stolen.   Although Maria Gelso  claimed to have seen it during the week, the only thing certain was that it had been there the previous Sunday, 12 October, during Mass in the Oratorio.  It has never been seen since  – at least not publicly.  Police initially believed that the theft had been the work of a local Palermo gang, and expressed fears that the painting might be cut into pieces to be sold.  But they found nothing. It seemed the painting had disappeared without trace. 

It is now the most valuable unrecovered stolen work of art in the world.  The general view is that, after more than forty years, it is unlikely to ever be seen again.  Most works that are recovered are recovered within twenty years of being stolen.  But it is impossible not to hope, and the search continues.  Over the years, conflicting evidence has been given as to what might have happened to the painting.  Numerous theories abound, and the mystery surrounding the painting’s disappearance has captured the imagination of numerous writers and journalists – and of everyone who visits the Oratorio. 

 In the early 1980s, Peter Watson, a Sunday Times journalist who had posed as an international art dealer in an attempt to recover the painting, published a book called The Caravaggio Conspiracy.  In it, he claims that in 1980, he was offered the painting in Laviano, a small town outside Naples.  He was shown a recent photograph of the painting, and agreed to be taken back to Laviano several days later to see the original.  But on the day of his scheduled return, Laviano was virtually destroyed by an earthquake and he was never again able to make  contact with the men who had offered to sell the painting.  

Several years later, in 1996,  during the trial of former Italian Prime Minister, Giulio Andreotti,  a  former Mafioso, Francesco Marino Mannoia, unexpectedly said that, as a young man,  he had stolen the Nativity.  He said he had used a razor blade to cut the painting out of its frame, then rolled or folded the painting and delivered it to the man who had ordered the theft. The painting, however, had been irreparably damaged in the process, and on seeing it, this man, who Mannoia has never named, burst into tears and refused to accept it.  Mannoia, now 59 years old, has a new identity and lives in the United States under the FBI Witness Protection Program.  He has never again spoken about the Nativity.   There are those who accept Mannoia’s evidence about the theft – and, for the moment at least, I am one of them.  But not everyone does. 

Peter Robb, for example, author of  Midnight in Sicily and M, a book about Caravaggio, has a different view, based on what he was told at the headquarters of the carabinieri’s Art Work Protection Unit in Rome.  It’s not that Mannoia was lying, he was told,  just that he was mistaken as to the identity of the painting he had stolen.  The theft of the Nativity was carried out by amateurs, but the painting subsequently ended up in the hands of the Mafia, being passed from one Palermo boss to another and finally to Gerlando Alberti, who is now in his late 80s and in prison.  Alberti apparently had the painting buried in an iron chest,  along with 5kg of heroin and several million dollars in cash,  before he went to prison.  However, when the site was subsequently dug up by Police, there was no trace of the chest.  Robb believes that the painting, which has passed from one Mafia boss to another over the years, will eventually turn up.

In 2009, yet another story was given to magistrates by another Mafioso turned informer, Gaspare Spatuzzo.  He said that while in prison he had been told by Mafia boss, Filippo Graviano, that the painting had been handed to the Pullara family, part of the Santa Maria di Gesu clan in Palermo (the clan, incidentally, to which Mannoia also belonged), for safe keeping.  They had hidden it in a farm outbuilding, where “it was eaten by rats and pigs, and so was burnt,”

Will we ever see the painting again?  Probably not, but it’s impossible to stop hoping – and, if you spend any time here, impossible not to be drawn into the mystery.  When I first visited the Oratorio of S. Lorenzo, the large empty frame above the altar was a stark reminder of the painting’s absence.  It may seem strange, but now that the frame has been filled with a copy of the painting, one feels the absence of the original even more strongly.     


4 Responses to “Caravaggio’s Nativity and the mystery of its disappearance – a metaphor for the city …”

  1. Sally F Says:

    A real mystery fit for Christmas …

  2. Cate Says:

    There seems to be no shortage of art mysteries in Sicily! I also hope for the safe return of Caravaggio’s Nativity – although, sadly, it sounds as though it would be something of a miracle.

    • kateludlow Says:

      Several years ago, in fact, a young Palermo man established an organisation that aims to increase awareness of, and to discourage, the illicit trade in stolen works of art. The organisation, ExtroArt, also works to recover stolen works of art and has had some successes – but, so far at least, Caravaggio’s Nativity has not been among them.

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