The Hunt for Caravaggio's Stolen "Nativity"

Seeking Caravaggio's "Nativity" painting

Seeking Caravaggio’s “Nativity”

The hunt for Caravaggio’s stolen “Nativity” painting may just be the most high-profile art crime of the 20th century.

One stormy night in 1969, an altarpiece painted by Italian master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was stolen from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily. Called the Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco, experts estimate its value at US$20 million. It is on the list of the FBI’s most-wanted stolen works of art”; it is believed members of the the Cosa Nostra (the Sicilian Mafia) were involved in the theft. 

Caravaggio’s Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco, circa 1609, stolen in 1969. Photographic reproduction from Wikimedia Commons.

How the painting came to be adds another rich layer to the story: the Nativity was painted by Caravaggio while he was on the run for murder.

Caravaggio: Artist, Genius, Murderer

Those who profile the 17th century Italian painter hail his unique genius, but also describe him as “arrogant” and “tempestuous“.

Born Michelangelo Merisi in 1571, he had always been known by the name of his hometown–Caravaggio–in Lombardy, northern Italy. He moved to Rome at the age of 20 to try his luck in Italy’s artistic centre. It was rough going at first for young Caravaggio, but in 1595, he found a patron in Cardinal Francesco del Monte. The cardinal was the ambassador of the powerful Medici family, and Caravaggio was introduced to the cardinal’s social circle.

These connections led to the public art commissions that would make Italy aware of Caravaggio’s genius. While his contemporaries still followed the elegant and sensuous Mannerist style of Raphael and Michaelangelo, Caravaggio painted religious scenes with “unsettling realism“, going for an intense, dramatic, and visceral style never before applied to Biblical paintings at that time.

Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac (circa 1598)
Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew (circa 1600)

His style influenced Holland’s Rembrandt (see related article), and his staging of his subjects and his innovative use of light and shadow (chiaroscuro) have influenced filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese.

Caravaggio’s realistic style and modern sensibilities is evident in his Nativity. Art historian Danielle Carrabino, speaking to Alastair Sooke in 2013, describes this.

“Christ seems like a weary newborn, almost cast on the hay. His mother appears dishevelled, exhausted from the birth. This isn’t only the scene of the birth of the saviour, but a scene of a mother who has just given birth to any child.”

Caravaggio on the run

The combustible Caravaggio had an incredible temper, not helped at all by his insistence to (illegally) bear a sword. He would be arrested several times, his success nearly overshadowed by his bar brawls. Incidents included abusing the police and throwing a plate of scalding artichokes at a waiter.

In 1606, Caravaggio got into an argument with another man over a gambling debt (or a woman). The argument escalated into a sword fight, which resulted in Caravaggio stabbing his rival and killing him. The Italian painter fled Rome, and he was convicted in absentia of murder.

He fled to Naples and Malta (he became a Knight of Malta but was expelled from the order after getting into yet another argument), before staying for a year in Sicily. It was in Sicily where he painted his late masterpieces, including the Nativity. 

In 1610, Caravaggio’s friends were busy campaigning the Pope for the painter’s pardon, but before Caravaggio could return to Rome, he succumbed to an illness in Tuscany at the age of 38. (Click here to read more about the Italian painter’s life.)

For nearly 400 years, Caravaggio’s Nativity hung above the altar in the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo–until thieves cut it from its frame in 1969.

Interior of the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Italy, showing the empty space where Caravaggio’s painting used to hang. Photo by Amrita/Wikimedia Commons.

Questioning the Mafia

The network of organised-crime groups called the Cosa Nostra (“our thing” or “our cause”) evolved on the Italian island of Sicily from clans who banded together to protect themselves from invading foreign forces (click here to read about the early history of Sicily) to violent private armies in the 19th century who extorted money from landowners (protection racketeering) and carried out their own brand of justice. The word “mafia” takes its roots from a Sicilian word which means “bragging”. The American Mafia, which rose to power during the 1920s Prohibition Era, was a separate entity which adopted some of the traditions of its Italian counterpart.

To quote the New York Times, “In the ’60s, no major crime could occur in Palermo without the Mafia knowing about it.” The Sicilian Mafia rose to greater heights during the post-World War II rebuilding of Sicily, as the construction companies were backed by mobsters. By the 1970s, the mob was a major player in the global drug trade.

When the Caravaggio went missing, investigators naturally turned to Cosa Nostra. The Mafia was said to be involved in the illegal trade of stolen art, which was used to pay for drugs and weapons.

Over the years, Mafia turncoats (pentiti) gave conflicting accounts regarding the painting’s fate: burned in a fire, abandoned in a farm outhouse and eaten by mice or pigs, used as a bedside rug, locked underground in an iron case, sold for diamonds in South Africa, etc.

Where is Caravaggio’s “Nativity” now?

In May 2017, Gaetano Grado, another turncoat, told the Italian Antimafia Commission that he was asked by mob boss Gaetano Badalamenti (who died in 2004) to look into the Caravaggio theft. Grado said he tracked down the thieves and the painting, which was then taken by Badalamenti to an art dealer in Switzerland. The art dealer reportedly cried upon seeing the masterpiece, and suggested to cut the painting into pieces in order to sell it discreetly. The dealer had also since died.

However, new developments in the investigations, reported in October 2018, disproved Grado’s testimony, with investigators saying that he must have mistaken the Caravaggio with another painting also stolen in Palermo.

Italian investigators are convinced Caravaggio’s Nativity is still in one piece, and have visited “an unspecified city” in Eastern Europe. However, art detective Charles Hill, speaking to The Guardian, says he believes the painting is still in Sicily, being used by the Cosa Nostra as collateral for drug deals.

As of December 2018, the painting’s fate remains a mystery. Only time will tell whether this 49-year search will have a happy ending. Until the masterpiece is found, a high-quality copy of Caravaggio’s Nativity, produced by art laboratory Factum Arte in 2015, hangs in its place.

Another Painting Lost and Found

Meanwhile, a painting depicting the Biblical story of Judith beheading the Assyrian general Holofornes (a second version of the well-known painting), believed to be by Caravaggio, was found by accident in an attic and will be auctioned in June 2019. It will be a no-reserve auction–which means the painting will be sold regardless of price. In 2016, two years after it was found, investigators and art historians made a compelling case that it was indeed painted by the Italian master, but the Louvre decided not to buy it. Now the painting will go to the highest bidder in Toulouse.

The highest bidder may be another museum. Of the 68 known paintings by Caravaggio, only four are in private hands, a testament to how rare these paintings are–and how frustrating it is to not know the fate of one.

Travelling to Caravaggio’s Italy

Duomo Of Milan Cathedral, Italy
Milan Cathedral Dome, Italy

If you want to learn more about Caravaggio and his other masterpieces, Odyssey Traveller has an escorted small group tour tracing Caravaggio’s journey, viewing the artistic works he left behind and exploring the tumultuous life he led. This tour follows him from his birthplace in Milan, to Rome, Malta, Sicily, and on to Naples. This tour was especially designed for the active mature and senior traveller and stays in eight different cities over 20 days. Click through to sign up.

This tour can be paired with the Florence tour, which stays in the city for 22 days. This gives the small group an immersive history lesson about the Medici family and the Renaissance period. Click through to sign up.

About Odyssey Traveller


Odyssey Traveller is committed to charitable activities that support the environment and cultural development of Australian and New Zealand communities. We specialise in educational small group tours for seniors, typically groups between six to 15 people. Odyssey has been offering this style of adventure and educational programs since 1983.

We are also pleased to announce that since 2012, Odyssey has been awarding $10,000 Equity & Merit Cash Scholarships each year. We award scholarships on the basis of academic performance and demonstrated financial need. We award at least one scholarship per year. We’re supported through our educational travel programs, and your participation helps Odyssey achieve its goals.

For more information on Odyssey Traveller and our educational small group tours, visit our website. Alternatively, please call or send an email. We’d love to hear from you!

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