The night of October 18, 1969, was dark and stormy. A tempest raged, with a wild wind and beating rain. It was a night, Colonel Robert Conforti, who was then chief of Italy’s art theft squad, told a reporter, “that presaged tragedy.”
That night a famous painting by Caravaggio, Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence, a large canvas 105 by 77 inches in size, was ripped from its frame in the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily, and disappeared. No one has seen it publicly since.
The theft made the news again in 1996, at the Mafia–association trial of former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti. He was convicted of conspiring with the Mafia in the killing of a journalist and then cleared on appeal.
Francesco Marino Mannoia, a convicted heroin dealer who was a Mafia pentito, or informer, testified that he took part in the theft. He said there had been a private buyer who wept at the sight of the damaged painting. But the police believed Mannoia exaggerated the damage. He never revealed the painting’s location. The police said his mother, sister, and aunt were murdered by the Mafia after he turned state’s evidence.
Palermo’s artistic heritage societies asked Mannoia to help recover the painting. “It’s something he could do for the good of Sicily,” said one Palermo official. More than 1,000 people in the city signed a petition asking the underworld for information. They didn’t get any.
Mannoia now reportedly lives in the United States under a witness–protection program.
There have been all sorts of theories as to the painting’s fate: that it was destroyed, that it was sold to a collector in Eastern Europe or to an Italian collector in South Africa, that it was buried in an earthquake in Naples or remained in the hands of the Mafia. The painting has been on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “Top Ten Art Crimes” list.
The story of the theft was resurrected yet again recently, during the trial in Florence on possible connections between a top ally of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Mafia bombings in the city in 1993.
Gaspare Spatuzza, who went to jail in 1997 on multiple counts of murder and became an informer last year, told magistrates that the painting had been hidden in a barn in Palermo in the ’80s and that it had been “ruined, eaten by rats and hogs and therefore burned.”
Spatuzza said that Filippo Graviano, a Mafia boss for whom he was a hit man, told him about the painting in 1999 during a conversation in prison. Graviano and his brother Giuseppe have been serving life sentences since 1994 for, among other crimes, involvement in the murder of two anti–Mafia judges, the killing of an anti–Mafia priest, the bombing of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and another bombing in Rome that killed ten people.
Caravaggio, who was born in 1571, was famous as an artist while he lived but was also, as Simon Schama wrote in Power of Art, “the unpredictable, sword–carrying, dagger–wielding eccentric with the hair–trigger temper.”
He supposedly beat up a waiter in an argument over a plate of artichokes, and killed a man in a street fight and fled from Rome. He was involved in brawls in Malta and Naples and was arrested several times. Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence was painted in 1609, a year before he died.
I asked Charley Hill, who was once a top member of Scotland Yard’s fabled Art and Antiques Squad and is now a much–sought–after private detective based in London, why the Mafia would steal the painting.
He said, “It was a trophy crime; they stole it as a trophy. They do it all the time. They often loot churches in southern Italy and Sicily.”
Hill, who is not an art historian but can discuss van Gogh as well as the use of light and shadow in Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Turner, added:
“My experience with the Mafia is that when mafiosos talk you cannot believe what they say. Those Mafia guys must be coming out with that bull about Caravaggio 40 years on because they want to test the water and see how people will react to that story about its destruction. The story probably means that the picture is in terrible shape but capable of being returned and restored.”
Why would they lie? “Probably because of their irrational logic,” he said. “It will make it easier for them to return it with some spurious cooked–up story.”
Robert Wittman, former senior investigator of the FBI’s art crime team, who is now a private art–recovery specialist, said: “The painting has not been seen in 40 years. Usually these come back into the market in a generation—20 years. That would make me believe that it’s been destroyed.”
He added: “You have to be careful when the Mafia gives you information. The mere fact that a mafioso says it was destroyed is not going to close the case. It will remain open until there’s some proof one way or another.”
Colonel Luigi Cortellesca, who is second in command of the Italian art theft squad, told Judith Harris, who writes for ARTnewsfrom Italy: “We take the news report of the destruction of the Caravaggio, which is not yet official, with the utmost caution. For the moment we go on doing our own work.”
A Palermo prosecutor has made a formal request to have Spatuzza’s comments sent to him.
No one seems to know exactly why Spatuzza testified about his former boss, Filippo Graviano. According to sources, he may be trying to get the best deal possible for himself while he is in prison.
In 2008 Graviano and his brother Giuseppe turned to academics and received degrees, Giuseppe in mathematics and Filippo in economics. An expert on the Mafia told the London Times that a favorite subject of imprisoned Mafia killers is law. “Either they want to find out where they went wrong, or they hope they will get out one day and that detailed knowledge of the law will help them to evade prison in future,” he said. One mafioso gained a law degree with a dissertation on “the experiences of prisoners serving life sentences.”
“Romanticizing the Mafia is a mistake,” Hill told me, “and believing what they have to say is an even greater mistake. Degrees? These are correspondence–course college degrees. It’s not like coming summa cum laude out of Harvard.”
Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews. Additional reporting by Judith Harris in Rome and Amanda Lynn Granek in New York.