In the autumn of 1608, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the most original Italian painter of the 17th Century, was on the run.
Tempestuous and arrogant, Caravaggio was forever getting into brawls. He swaggered about with a sword at his side and once flung a plate of scalding artichokes in the face of a waiter, supposedly because some of them were cooked in butter rather than oil.
Yet even by his own combustible standards two years earlier he had crossed a line, when he killed a man in a quarrel over a gambling debt at a tennis match. Before he could be charged with murder, he fled Rome and spent the rest of his short life as a fugitive from justice.
That autumn in 1608, following spells in Naples and Malta, he arrived in Sicily. He stayed on the island for around a year, sleeping fitfully with a dagger by his side, and painting several late masterpieces, including the Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco.
For more than three-and-a-half centuries, the canvas hung in its original location above the altar in the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo – until a stormy October night in 1969, when thieves cut it from its frame. Unseen since by anyone beyond the criminal underworld, the painting, which is valued at $20 million, is on the FBI’s list of the top 10 unsolved art crimes. Today, a milky reproduction of the painting hangs in its place in the Oratory – a sickly ghost of a lost masterpiece.
According to art historian Danielle Carrabino, who is writing a book about Caravaggio’s time in Sicily, the disappearance of the Nativity has done “immense” damage to Western art. “Caravaggio was only 39 when he died [in 1610], so we don’t have the benefit of a lifetime of works,” she explains. “In fact, we have so few works by him – only around 70 paintings – that even to lose one is a great loss to our understanding.”
Photographs of the Nativity reveal that Caravaggio, who was famous for using ordinary people as models, tackled a traditional Christian subject in a decidedly untraditional fashion.
“The painting is very dramatic,” says Carrabino. “Christ seems like a weary newborn, almost cast on the hay. His mother appears dishevelled, exhausted from the birth. This isn’t only the scene of the birth of the saviour, but a scene of a mother who has just given birth to any child. By relating the scene to our own lives, Caravaggio is able to reach a larger audience. He has even left space for us to join the semi-circle of adoration, so that we really feel we’re part of this event. It’s very humble.”
Into thin air
Recently, while filming a new BBC television documentary about stolen art, I travelled to Palermo to find out more about Caravaggio’s Nativity. Since it was stolen 44 years ago, there have been scores of rumours about the painting’s fate.
Many people note that the painting appeared in a television programme about Italy’s hidden artistic treasures that was broadcast shortly before the theft. Some think that this tipped off the thieves about the importance of Caravaggio’s masterpiece, and therefore the criminals were opportunistic amateurs.
In one form or another, though, almost all the stories involve the Mafia, who quickly became prime suspects following the painting’s disappearance. “The Mafia is involved in the illegal trade in stolen art,” says Ludovico Gippetto, founder of Extroart, a group dedicated to the retrieval of stolen art. “Stolen works of art pay for drugs and arms. The turnover in stolen art is second to the turnover from drugs.”
Over the years, a number of ex-Mafia informants have spoken out about Caravaggio’s Nativity. According to one, the thieves who cut the picture from its frame did so much damage that when they presented it to the man who had commissioned the theft, he burst into tears. According to another, the Nativity was hidden for safekeeping in a farm outhouse, where it was gnawed by rats and pigs, and so was burnt. “Or it was locked underground in an iron case with US dollars and refined heroin, or sold for diamonds in South Africa,” says Carrabino. “It goes on and on.”
“There are many theories about the theft of Caravaggio’s painting,” explains Giovanni Pastore, who worked for the Italian military police’s art squad until his retirement in 2011. “Many of them were based on unreliable rumours or hints given by the police and then fictionalised – almost like novels.”
So can he tell me anything for certain? “It is a fact that the canvas was taken from its frame,” he says. “Therefore the act was committed with a cutter, or even with a razor blade. I can also tell you that the painting never left Italy, because at the international level there were no rumours. But as for the rest – whether it was destroyed or is still around, etc – there is no evidence, only rumours.”
With every year that passes, the chances of the Nativity being recovered surely diminish. Caravaggio was no stranger to criminals himself but his incandescent genius has been extinguished by the gloom of the Sicilian underworld. As for Pastore, until he encounters evidence of the painting’s destruction, he will continue to believe that it still exists. “We keep on investigating,” he tells me.
Carrabino relies on hope rather than facts. “I don’t want to believe that it was destroyed,” she says. “There’s a transcendent feeling you get in front of a painting by Caravaggio – and I haven’t been able to have that with this work. For me, it’s the missing piece of the puzzle.”
Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph.