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Nativity with Saints Lawrence and Francis

Nativity with Saints Lawrence and Francis, Caravaggio, 1609


Is it possible to add anything new to the chapters of Caravaggio and his painting ‘Nativity with Saints Lawrence and Francis’?  Created over 400 years ago, its master now dust, the painting would seem incapable of adding further information to its luxurious story.  Nonetheless, there is something about Caravaggio, he is THAT guy of the Renaissance, and the beauty he left behind lives on, long after the death of the truculent artist, his oeuvre takes on a life of its own.  If you share my addiction to history and art, these stories compel us to know more.

The ‘Nativity’ was painted for the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily, 1609; Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was on the run from the Knights of Malta and hoping to paint his redemptive return.  (Information about this chapter in the artist’s life can be found here.) The epic masterpiece hung above the altar of the Oratory (268 cm x 197 cm), but was removed from its frame by two thieves during the night 18 October, 1969.  The local Sicilian Mafia is generally considered the prime culprits in the theft, but no substantial suspects have emerged for prosecution or repatriation of the stolen painting.  Nothing fresh in this material, occasionally a named Mafioso will put forward additional evidence that is at best a continuation of misdirection.

Inspiration came from a recently published book by a local writer, in which the missing masterpiece is unearthed, compelling more than 1000 residents to sign a petition appealing to the underworld to tell all.  Gives the impression of a sketchy move for publicity, what postal code would you use?  Attn:  Underworld, PA, Italy 90100.

“We want to send out the message that it won’t do any harm to give it back and it might even do some good,” says Ricardo Agnello, the head of the Palermo branch of the Italian Environment Fund who organized the campaign.  The Italian police admit it has no strong leads, but officers believe that the painting passed into Mafia hands soon after it was cut from it its frame.

Red Leather Archive

That small mention in a London paper waited quietly in my Red Leather file case until the day I miraculously had enough time to sift through a majority of the pages.  Many gems were uncovered, but this one, Caravaggio, is a beloved subject, compelling me to create the Red Leather Archive.  I took to Google, imagining not much to be found above the criminal element of the tale.  Down the rabbit hole I went.

A new twist emerged in the legend that once symbolized the Costa Nostra’s enduring hold over Italy.  A facsimile of the lost Caravaggio was completed and installed, December 2015.  Not just a copy, this is much, much more.  For years only an enlarged photograph hung above the altar, the fate of the original work still a lingering question.  Through an initiative with Sky TV and Factum Arte, a team of computer engineers and designers sought a way to restore this lost beauty to the city of Palermo.  Working with only a color slide and some black & white photos, the group had precious little to reference of the original work.  Nevertheless, their labor of love is not anything less than exquisite.  Their splendid video of the process of creation and the unveiling is available here.


Facsimlie installed


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, born 1571, still making news 445 years later; his oeuvre proving to be a constantly changing body of evidence. The progression of his life and that of his art never fails the imagination.  Honoring this heritage with a facsimile is a new consideration for the art world that initiates fresh dialog on authenticity and originality.  Arguably, nothing can replace the stolen painting.  This effort, partnered in technology, restores the cultural heritage of Palermo, once irrevocably damaged by greed and crime.

Cheers to you for finding me after a long, unexpected sabbatical. Wasn’t this an intriguing story? A deeper discussion on facsimiles can be found at Aeon, A Fake of Art, by Noah Charney, including a participatory conversation.  I hope you enjoy my new feature on This Write Life!



Filed under February

Rock’n Roll on Museum Monday with Rick’s Picks

ELO Kiddies!

I am updating this post in order to share the news that Cheap Trick will be inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame during the 2016 ceremonies.  In honor of this long awaited accomplishment, enjoy a museum experience like no other, with Rick’s Picks, my first #ThrowbackThursday.


Hall of Fame logo

On this Museum Monday, we are going to take a tour through some rock ’n roll history in Rockford, Illinois.  The Burpee Museum is currently exhibiting the guitar collection of one of the greatest musicians of all time, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, with Rick’s Picks.  This is not your average grouping of memorabilia.  From Cheap Trick’s humble beginnings of a local band to world-wide recognition, Rick saved everything from his worldwide tours, and now this nostalgia can be viewed by everyone at the Burpee.

Timeline of Rick Nielsen’s life

Nielsen, when asked what the exhibit means to him, had this to say, “It’s a lot more than just guitars. It’s my life. It’s perpetual motion, magic potions, evolutions, false conclusions, harmonic fusions, full color illusions, black and blue contusions, diffusions and delusions, late night seclusions, superstition and ambition, flights over oceans, shameless promotions, occasional demotions, sonic explosions, prepositions and compositions, traditions and transitions, collisions and decisions, expectations and exhilaration, havens and invasions, schemes, dreams and extremes, documentation and amplification, loving emotions conquering pre-conceived notions. It’s my story in guitars, music, video and all the stuff I’ve saved all these years: cracked open for all the world to see. Hope you come, hope you have fun, ‘cuz oh boy, this house’ll be rockin’.”

One of the most interesting aspects regarding the influence of Cheap Trick in Rockford is that everyone seems to have a story about the band.  Rick and his family have lived here for years, a part of the city’s nomenclature.  I have run into Mr. Nielsen several times on the Sunday morning Starbuck’s run before going to the grocery; he can be found having breakfast at the Stockholm Inn, a city staple, or dining at the Japanese restaurant JMK Nippon; driving past in traffic in his classic Thunderbird; there is even a special seat at the Coronado Theater tricked out in black and white checkerboard, a favorite design.  The influence of Rick can be seen throughout Rockford, as he continues to give back to the community.  He appears in YouTube tourism videos that parody the Wisconsin state senators who hid out in the Best Western Clock Tower Resort last year.

At Burpee, the immense exhibit had a real challenge to showcase Rick’s guitars and the accompanying memorabilia.  I cannot imagine the amount of meetings required to discuss the choices.   According to the website, Rick gave the keys to his colorful past and storage units to the curators and said, “Go for it!  Surprise me!”  Fans have declared Rick’s Picks “Better than Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Seattle’s EMP Museum.”

Rick being one of those guys that has common ground with any musician, brought along friends Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, Slash of Guns n’ Roses, Todd Rundgren and Joe Perry of Aerosmith.  Video commentary throughout the exhibit on the guitars and Rick’s influence on musicians is available on the latest iPad technology, with headphones to catch every nuance provided by Shure.

The art of this exhibit is found on the guitars.  Rick has a collection of 2000+, many of his own design, some are guitars of his celebrity friends like Brian May of Queen.  I particularly like the Batman guitar, but the showcase piece is Rick’s famous five neck, manufactured by Hamer in 1981.  This unique instrument was so popular onstage a second one was designed with the signature checkerboard pattern.  Why five necks?  Rick’s desire to play multiple guitars during songs spawned the creation.

The most creative idea in the exhibit is the drawers.  How else to showcase a collection of incredible miscellany that spans an entire career?  Early letters from Rick’s high school, lyrics to ‘Heaven Tonight’ on scraps of paper, tickets, boarding passes, hotel keys, its all there; showcased in drawers that can be opened by the viewer bringing the exhibit to a new level, with a personal invitation to dig through his drawers from Rick himself.

I would like to thank Alan Brown, executive director of the Burpee Museum, for pointing out that Cheap Trick has yet to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; this oversight is no longer the case, as the band will be a part of the 2016 Inductees ceremony, announced 12/17/15 .  And many thanks to Jay Graham of Graham and Spencer, who was giving a special insider tour when I visited the museum, providing many special insights and details.

I hope you have enjoyed this Museum Monday, I included lots of video clips and interview bits to click through on the photos.  If you have any comments on Rick’s Picks, please use the space below.  I hope you as much fun with this as I did!

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Filed under December