On Oct. 17, 1969, during a stormy night, a masterpiece of early 17th century Italian religious painting was stolen from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Italy. The act was executed with precision by a group of art criminals most likely operating on a Mafia commission. Although there have been tantalizing hints and speculation about the painting’s survival and its current condition, the work has remained missing throughout an intense international investigation that has lasted almost 60 years.
The canvas is by the most egregious bad boy of Italian Mannerist art, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. It is titled Nativity with Saints Lawrence and Francis, and it was painted in Palermo in 1609 while the artist was in hiding, trying to escape arrest for a probable murder in Rome as well as a violent altercation in Malta. (At that time, Italy was not a unified nation state, but a loosely linked confederation of governing entities, each with fiercely independent rival leaders. Controversial figures routinely sought refuge and impunity from the legal reach of neighboring states.)
The story of the painting’s disappearance and the search to find it was recently documented by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian.
This altarpiece painting might be in safe keeping, secured as a valuable negotiating piece or drug-trade collateral by the Sicilian Mafia, or it might have been stored badly in an old barn, reduced to fragments by time and weather or even eaten by hogs. Speculations run the gamut of dark scenarios, and there are enough plot twists to power a Hollywood heist movie.
In February 2017, The Guardian published an article about high-tech efforts to create a state-of-the-art restoration of the painting, one that would be hung back in the Oratory of San Lorenzo. The project was carried out by Factum Arte, based in Milan and Madrid, under Adam Lowe. The best source reference for the 2x3-meter painting was a 4x5-inch color transparency made by photographer Enzo Brai.
In 2009, Factum Arte made reproductions of three Caravaggio paintings located in Rome’s Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Magpie Aesthetic detailed that work here.
The Italian television network Sky Arte also commissioned a 45-minute documentary about the stolen Caravaggio. It doesn’t feature English subtitles, but despite the lack of translation, the documentary offers compelling viewing:
I know that a stolen painting may be an unusual topic to blog about at Christmas, but this Christian Nativity theme is my own small bow to the spirit of the season. Who knows whether this great painting will ever resurface?
What we do have from that period of history is much of its glorious music, thanks to the libraries and archives of many of the same churches whose visual art has been pillaged. If you, like me, are not a fan of the tried-and-true holiday-music classics, whether hymns or pop/rock ballads or irritatingly insistent “variety” songs, I have an alternative offering. This time of the year, I most enjoy pulling out CDs of medieval and Renaissance vocal music by groups such as Anonymous 4, Chanticleer, Marcel Pérès’ Ensemble Organum and Peter Phillips’ Tallis Scholars — great music with the seasonal gravitas that, in our most thoughtful moments, we revere both in a spiritual and aesthetic context.
So, in this spirit, I offer you a concert by my favorite group that performs “early music.” Music director, conductor and viol player Jordi Savall is the great Catalan musician who, with his Hespèrion XXI ensemble, continues to delight audiences in dozens of recordings. Their performances, typically in churches and other intimate venues, include a perennial January stint at New York City’s Juilliard School.
Have the most beautiful of holidays.
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