Palermo, 18 October 1969: it’s a dark and stormy night and two low-lifes in a Piaggio Ape are driving along the Via Immacolatella in the historic centre. They stop at the Oratory of San Lorenzo, break in and make straight for Caravaggio’s Nativity hanging above the altar, cut the canvas from its frame with a razor, roll it up and leave.
This is the opening sequence of one of the most notorious art thefts in history, a sequence that some still find credible. Fifty years on, though, the crime has still not been solved. The passage of time and the endless versions of events offered by informers and pseudo-detectives have taken over the inquiries, while the actual fate of the Nativity remains shrouded in mystery.
Here we sum up a few of the most imaginative hypotheses based on the opening sequence outlined above.
• The mafioso pentito ( a criminal turned state witness), Marino Mannoia , told Judge Giovanni Falcone in 1989—and he repeated the statement in 1996—that the Caravaggio had been stolen to order, but when the purchaser saw it, he turned it down because it was badly damaged and he subsequently ordered it to be cut up and burned. Mannoia also hinted at the involvement of a former prime minister, Giulio Andreotti.
• Another mafioso, Gerlando Alberti, said that the painting had come into his possession, but after failing to sell it, he had buried it with a hoard of dollars; excavations on his property were carried out but nothing was found.
• The hit-man Giovanni Brusca, who murdered Judge Falcone in 1992, offered to return the painting in exchange for more lenient treatment after he was arrested in 1996.
• Another mafia murderer, Gaspare Spatuzza, said the painting was kept in a barn, where it was eaten by mice and pigs, while the British journalist Peter Watson claimed to have tracked it down, but that it got buried under rubble during the 1980 earthquake in Irpinia while negotiations were underway with the Camorra, the Neapolitan equivalent of the mafia, to exchange it for a cache of drugs and arms.
• Guido De Santis, a RAI radio journalist, says that he saw the painting and that the theft was carried out on the orders of the mafioso boss Pietro Vernengo, who delivered it to another boss, who tried, unsuccessfully to sell it, and then destroyed it.
• Salvatore Cangemi, the first mafioso to turn pentito, said it was displayed at high-level mafia meetings as a symbol of power. Other pentito mafiosi have said that they used it as a carpet—the most insolent claim by far.
This stream of stories, boasts and false leads has kept the police busy for years and has led to just two conclusions: the painting was stolen by the mafia, and it was then destroyed.
In 2017, however, the case was re-opened by the anti-mafia commission, led by its president, the government minister Rosy Bindi. Having acquired new statements from Mannoia and another pentito, Gaetano Grado, the commission concluded that the painting still exists and that after it was relinquished by the boss Gaetano Badalamenti (one of the most powerful traffickers in the Sicilian heroin trade with the US, who died in a US prison in 2004), it was cut up and is now in Switzerland.
This report is undoubtedly significant and although it contains a number of logistical and geographical inaccuracies in the statements made by the two pentiti—and not all antique dealers consulted agree that it is likely the painting was cut up—the document has the great merit of resurrecting the work, identifying the role of Badalamenti and suggesting where it might be.
Attention has focused again on the accusations, levied immediately after the theft by Monsignor Rocco, custodian of the Oratory, against Badalamenti. Although these were ignored at the time, Rocco stated that, after being shown a piece of canvas as proof, he opened the way to possible negotiations but was stopped by the then state official for works of art, Vincenzo Scuderi.
Relations between the two were particularly tense because Scuderi had not listened to the priest’s requests, made well before the theft, to tighten the security of the building, and, against Rocco’s wishes, he had also authorised RAI, the state broadcasting company, to film a programme on hidden treasures inside the oratory, which was broadcast in August 1969. Rocco blamed this programme for the theft. The anti-mafia commission’s investigations are basing themselves on Rocco’s statements accusing Badalamenti of having the painting, and this would clearly be a lead to follow now.
This rapid overview of the situation raises a number of questions that have never been answered by earlier investigations. First, when was Caravaggio’s Nativity actually stolen? The congregation saw it for the last time at Sunday mass on 12 October 1969, and the Gelfo sisters, the caretakers of the oratory, noticed it had gone missing on Saturday 18 October when they entered the oratory to prepare for the mass on the following day. The theft must, therefore, have been committed between 12 and the 18 October, which allows time for the work to have been smuggled out of Palermo. News of the theft was only reported in Giornale di Sicilia on 20 October.
Second, the police report on the state of the premises, a vital document for understanding the theft, has disappeared.
Third, is the opening sequence as described above, and taken as the basis for all subsequent investigations, credible? Could the removal of a painting measuring 3x2 metres, on particularly heavy wooden stretchers, hanging at a height of six metres and surrounded by the delicate plasterwork of Giacomo Serpotta, to which there was no damage whatsoever, really have been the work of two common thieves?
And what of removing the canvas with a razor blade without leaving a single millimetre of paint on the remaining shreds? The excision was carried out with extreme skill and precision and can neither have been rushed or improvised.
So, if this was not the work of two delinquents who happened to break into the oratory and carry off the canvas after slashing it out of its frame, then the most probable hypothesis is that the theft was well prepared and carried out to order, perhaps by professionals.
Indeed, this suspicion was voiced at the time in the headline of Giornale di Sicilia, and it was repeated by Maresciallo Guelfo Giuliano Andrei of the newly formed Carabinieri’s Tutela Patrimonio Culturale (division for the protection of cultural heritage), sent to Palermo to coordinate the investigations, who issued a statement saying that “the theft was not opportunistic, but may have been ordered by a gang of international, organised criminals using local operatives in Palermo”.
This hypothesis was abandoned too soon, probably in order to follow the confessions and revelations offered by pentiti mafiosi, and it would now be worth reinvestigating, with leads to Switzerland and to Badalamenti’s role as the person who either ordered the theft or paid those who carried it out.
Last, it is worth mentioning the thought-provoking theory of a local anthropologist, scholar and mafia expert who suggests that the mafia had nothing to do with the theft but became its victim because such an outrageous act threatened its claim to territorial control and its international prestige as an organised criminal network. It therefore laid claim to the theft and boasted about it with numerous different versions of the story, all of which ending, of course, in the destruction of the Nativity.
Fifty years have passed. Many of the protagonists have died, but no stone is being left unturned now and hope is still alive. It relies on trust in the continuing investigation, on chance discovery, or the miracle of a deathbed repentance by the unlawful possessor, who knows that they will shortly meet their Maker.
• The author is the president of the Amici dei Musei Siciliani