Talk on stolen Caravaggio resurfaces

A new book on Palermo's stolen Caravaggio reignites an old debate on art, the Mafia, and the inefficiency of Italian authorities.

It’s a question experts, academics, or simply art aficionados have been asking themselves for the last 40 years: Where is Caravaggio's "Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence?" After decades of investigation still nobody knows.

The only certainty Italian authorities have, is that the late Caravaggio masterpiece was stolen on the night of October 17, 1969. It had been resting untouched for 360 years in the Church of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily. Valued at around $30 million, it tops the police's most wanted art object list.

After a time of relative silence the debate has sprung up again. Luca Scarlini, author of the recently published "The Stolen Caravaggio: Myth and story of a robbery" went deep to untangle the story, read piles of police proceedings, and talked to a plethora of experts to make sense of the scattered information that "repentant" Mafiosi have given authorities over the decades.

Confessions greatly differ from one another. In 2008, former Mafia leader Gaspare Spatuzza told the Palermo police that the painting, temporarily hid in a barn, was damaged by rats and afterwards burned. Another Cosa Nostra boss, Salvatore Cancemi, confessed that every time the heads of the Mafia gather, Caravaggio's “Nativity” is showcased so that the bosses can remind themselves of their power in relation to that of the Italian state.

"None of these claims have ever been demonstrated," says Vincenzo Bilardello, art history professor at Sapienza University in Rome. Mr. Scarlini agrees. "All this confusion is wanted by the Mafia. It's called a 'trial trick.’ Every time a Mafioso stands on trial he has the possibility to play the Caravaggio card and try to strike a deal with the police.”

Despite its grim history the story could end on a positive note. After 10 years most crimes cease to be punishable, according to Italian law, rendering the painting's rediscovery more likely since the 1980s. "It's possible ‘The Nativity’ will show up somewhere unexpected," the author says. "It happened last April with a Cezanne painting, too, so who says it can't happen again?"

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