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Still Missing: Caravaggio’s Missing Nativity

March 21, 2024
A Caravaggio nativity painting

Nativity with St. Francis & St. Lawrence by Caravaggio

For the next entry in the Still Missing series, we’ve gone from Canada to Belgium to Britain, and now to Italy. In 2005, the FBI compiled a list of the most significant art thefts on record. One was the theft of a Caravaggio painting from a Sicilian church in 1969.

Nativity with Saint Francis & Saint Lawrence was painted by Michelangelo da Caravaggio in 1609, about a year before his death. It was originally created in Rome but moved to the Oratorio di San Lorenzo in Palermo. The painting shows Mary and Joseph accompanied by, anachronistically, two saints several centuries before their time, all gazing upon the baby Jesus. The figures stand out in front of pitch dark, one of Caravaggio’s hallmarks. Above them, an angel carries a banner reading Gloria in excelsis Deo, or Glory to God in the highest.

On October 17, 1969, two men broke into the church and cut the Caravaggio from its frame. They put it on top of a carpet, rolled them together, and took off. Italian police, the FBI, and Interpol contributed to the initial investigation. In 2009, specialists valued the painting at around $20 million. No one can agree on the painting’s fate. However, it is widely accepted that the Sicilian mafia most likely perpetrated the theft. Several mafiosi who have since become government witnesses stated that they were involved in the initial robbery or saw the painting somewhere following the initial incident. One man told investigators that he had helped steal the work so it could be sold to a private collector. However, when this collector learned they had damaged the Caravaggio by cutting it out of the frame, he became very upset and called off the deal. Other informants say it was gifted or sold to one of several Sicilian mafia bosses, including Gaetano Badalamenti and Salvatore Riina. Some witnesses and investigators claim that the painting was destroyed, while others say it was likely transported to Eastern Europe. There are even some who say that the painting is still hidden somewhere in Sicily.

In 2015, the British broadcasting company Sky commissioned a replica of the Caravaggio, which was unveiled on December 12th of that year. The recently elected president, Sergio Mattarella, was in attendance for the unveiling. His presence there was likely incredibly moving since not only is he a native of Palermo, but his brother Piersanti was an anti-mafia politician who was murdered in 1980, less than two miles away on the other side of the city.