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?"

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Talk on stolen Caravaggio resurfaces
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today