Caravaggio involved in the «Maxi Trial»: the lost painting and the rediscovered copy
Sicily, to this day, holds a great mystery: what has happened to Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence? There are many fascinating theories on the matter, and someone even believes it used to be displayed at the meetings of the major mafia bosses
Some stories seem to come from a novel of Andrea Camilleri or Leonardo Sciascia, and maybe they do. Sicily: land of foreign rule, birthplace of remarkable men and home to unsolved mysteries, such as the one concerning the place where the stolen Caravaggio is still hidden. The night between 17 and 18 October 1969 three thieves broke into the Oratory of San Lawrence in Palermo, which was one of the most degraded neighborhoods in town, and stole the Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence painted by the Lombard artist. Probably the three scoundrels did not know its importance, and this would explain why they were summoned shortly after by those who held power in Palermo at the time, that is the mafia bosses. The first to understand that the heist must had been linked to « Cosa Nostra » was Mauro De Mauro, a journalist of the newspaper Ora who disappeared the following year, when a lupara bianca was carried out. Alongside him, Leonardo Sciascia also took part in the debate. In a very harsh article he condemned the government for neglecting and abandoning many works of art.
Today it is still the most wanted masterpiece in the world, not only because of its artistic value, but also because of its economic one. It is estimated to be worth around 27 million pounds, although according to many critics it is probably invaluable. Over the years the painting has made the news because it cropped up during the « Maxi Trial » (a criminal trial against the Sicilian Mafia that took place in Palermo). Several repentants used the canvas to have their sentences reduced: Giovanni Brusca, for instance, in 1992 promised its return in exchange for the lightening of his 41bis; Francesco Marino Mannoia pleaded guilty to the organization of the theft, while Gaspare Spatuzza said he had heard from Filippo Graviano, with whom he was serving a sentence, that the picture, completetly neglected, had been eaten by mice and pigs. According to others, it was hidden by the drug trafficker Gerlando Alberti along with 5 kilos of cocaine. Among the most picturesque and fascinating versions there is also the one of Salvatore Cancemi, who instead reported that it was exhibited during the meetings of the major mafia bosses (also known as the « Cupola »). Unfortunately, the fate of this work is still unknown: in 2018 the parliamentary anti-mafia commission tried to shed new light on this Italian mystery. Its findings have a bittersweet taste, as the work may have ended up in Switzerland, where it was cut into pieces to be sold on the art market more easily.
Castle Ursino, in Catania, holds a faithful copy of the painting and the only contemporary one, which was painted less than 30 years after the original. The work was recognized by the Caravaggesque scholar Alvise Spataro in 1984, behind the desk of the Prefect of Catania. Made by the painter Paolo Geraci, who tried to respect the will of Michelangelo, it is of the same size of original. The artist from Palermo painted the work on commission of don Gaspare Orioles, who paid him 30 ounces. Later the painting passed to the President of the Supreme Court of Palermo, Giovan Battista Finocchiaro, who donated it to the city of Catania in 1826.
In the Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, as always happens in Caravaggio’s paintings, the gestures and movements of the characters appear very natural. The Virgin admires the miracle she has just created, while Joseph, turning his back to the spectator, speaks with someone, whom many critics believe to be Saint Leo of Assisi. Saints Lawrence and Francis of Assisi are in adoration; the first is on the right, as he is owner of the oratory where the painting was meant to be displayed, while the second is on the left, as he is eponym of the company based at the oratory of Palermo.
Translated into English by Eva Luna Mascolino