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.
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.
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!