A sad Nativity story

Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence, Caravaggio, 1609One of Caravaggio’s last paintings (painted in 1609, a year before he died), the Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence, was stolen from the oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo in 1969. Despite many appeals from authorities, scholars and art lovers at the time and since, the painting has never been recovered.

The meager hope, if it can be called that, was that the theft had been commissioned by a mafia don and the painting was hanging in some private collection, possibly to turn up after a death or search warrant or trial.

Those hopes both flickered and dimmed in the mid-80’s when during the trial of former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti a heroin dealer and mafioso named Francesco Marino Mannoia said he’d been one of the thieves in 1969. According to him, they damaged the painting in removing it from the frame, and the private collector who commissioned the theft wept at the sight of it.

Still, that was better than some of the other theories, like that it was moved to Naples and destroyed in the 1980 earthquake or left the country alltogether. Now a former mafia hitman who has turned state’s evidence says he heard from his boss 10 years ago about the sad fate of the masterpiece.

Gaspare Spatuzza, who was imprisoned in 1997 on multiple counts of murder and turned informer last year, has told magistrates that Filippo Graviano, a Mafia boss for whom he was a hitman, told him in 1999 in prison that the painting was destroyed in the 1980s.

He said that Graviano, who with his brother Giuseppe Graviano ran one of the most powerful Cosa Nostra clans, had told him that the painting, said to be worth at least £20 million [$32 million], was handed for safe keeping to the Pullara family, part of the Santa Maria di Gesu clan in Palermo, who hid it in a farm outbuilding. “There it was eaten by rats and pigs, and so was burnt,” Spatuzza said.

There’s no way to confirm the story, of course, so there’s still a chance the Nativity could be hidden away somewhere instead of destroyed, but I’m afraid it’s a slim one. 🙁

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