Alongside the FBI’s notorious Ten Most Wanted List is another, often overshadowed list the bureau keeps, one that tracks a different set of outstanding acts of thievery and destruction—the FBI’s Top Ten Art Crimes.
Listed at number three among other crimes that have fundamentally shaken the art world, including the Gardner Museum break-in and the looting of Iraq’s cultural artifacts, is the theft of the “Nativity of St. Francis and St. Lawrence,” a giant painting by Michelangelo Merisi, who is known as “Caravaggio,” that was cut out of its frame over the altar of a church in Palermo in 1969 and hasn’t been seen since.
The story of the infamous “Nativity of St. Francis and St. Lawrence” has all the makings of a good heist film, starting with its own origins in its creator’s exile from Rome.
Over the course of 14 years starting in 1592 when he was 21, Milan-born Caravaggio had established himself as one of the greatest painters in Rome. He had hustled his way from obscurity to fame and collected the patrons, protectors, and commissions that came along with it.
He was living the 16th-century artistic high life. But, in the process, he had also become something of his century’s “star gone wild”; Caravaggio was a Renaissance bad boy with some unsavory habits and a very ill temper.
It all came to a head one night in 1606, when he accidentally killed a man after starting one of his notorious brawls. Rumor has it that an argument over a game of tennis escalated until Caravaggio unsheathed the sword he didn’t technically have permission to carry and fatally stabbed his poor adversary. A frequent flier at the jailhouse, he didn’t wait around long enough to discover the punishment for his latest, gravest offense. He fled the city.
One would assume that this life-changing episode would have taught Caravaggio a lesson, proved the “come to Jesus” moment for the painter who traded in religious tableaus. But not so.
For four years, until his death in 1610, Caravaggio roamed the countryside of southern Italy, moving from Naples to Malta to Sicily, leaving a rash of offenses, angry victims, and jail stays in his wake.
In 1609 in yet another of his bouts on the lam, Caravaggio landed in Palermo for a short time. In the land that would become a haven for a new crop of gangsters only a century later, Caravaggio bided his time hoping that a pardon from the Pope would arrive to release him from his exile from Rome. In the meantime, he painted the “Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence.”
On a giant, 9-by-6.5-foot canvas, Caravaggio captured his version of the iconic scene of the birth of Jesus.
Against his typical dark backdrop, the painter situated the new baby on display on a pile of hay in the middle of the canvas, with a meditative Mary looking over him. They are surrounded by a semi-circle of four men, including a tired Joseph and the two saints, both somber as they gaze over the new baby.
Caravaggio was an innovative artist who ushered in a style that would have a profound impact on the artists that followed. He shocked his contemporaries by painting straight on his canvases, rather than making preparatory sketches and studies, and by using real people as models to stand in for the religious figures. His paintings rely heavily on chiaroscuro, the dramatic technique of light and shadow that he helped to popularize, and a dose of realism.
Rather than portraying his figures with the beatific visages that were the stylistic norm of the day, he gives his characters and settings a more realistic treatment, wearied looks, dirty feet, and all. His holy figures are people ordinary viewers can relate to.
When it was completed, the “Nativity of St. Francis and St. Lawrence” was mounted in the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, and there it hung for the next 360 years—until October 17, 1969, when a person or persons unknown broke into the building on a stereotypical “dark and stormy night” and cut the canvas out of its frame.
The prevailing theory holds that the Sicilian Mafia either masterminded the theft or became its beneficiary. Many believe the painting has never left Italy, but, to this day, there have been no concrete leads and no confirmed sightings of “The Nativity of St. Francis and St. Lawrence.”
The painting vanished leaving only whispered rumors—and a $20 million price tag— in its wake.
The speculation on the painting’s current whereabouts are wide-ranging at best. Some claim it was most likely destroyed, either in the shoddy theft itself or after being left to the mercy of pigs and rats when it was stored in a barn in Sicily.
Still, others think the canvas may have been damaged or destroyed in the 1980 earthquake that rocked the island. While another set believes it may be hidden away in an attic somewhere, possibly forgotten, or have found a home in the private collection of a black-market buyer.
In 1996, authorities thought they finally had a break in the case when, in the midst of making his not-so-holy confession, a Mafia informant claimed to have seen the painting. Francesco Marino Mannoia testified that he had been one of the thieves at the center of the story, who committed the crime on behalf of a buyer who broke down when he saw the sorry state of the painting.
The damaged work was rejected and subsequently stashed away in an attic somewhere. Despite a 1,000-signature petition from residents of Palermo pleading for his help, Mannoia never revealed where he believed the canvas to be hidden.
In 2009, another informant introduced the barn-and-pig theory to the myth of Caravaggio’s missing masterpiece. Despite their willingness to talk, many experts doubt the veracity of the testimony from the former associates of the Mafia.
“My experience with the Mafia is that when mafiosos talk you cannot believe what they say,” Charlie Hill, a former member of the Scotland Yard Art and Antiques Unit told ArtNews. “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.”
Other experts believe, given that the painting hasn’t surfaced anywhere in the nearly 47 years since it was stolen, it is most likely gone for good.
Caravaggio, for his part, didn’t fare much better. After finishing the “Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence,” the painter returned to Naples, where he was severely injured in yet another fight.
A few months later—hoping that his Papal pardon would be issued soon—he began heading back to Rome. While stopped in Porto Ecole, Caravaggio died at the age of 38. The cause has never been officially determined, but many believe he succumbed to pneumonia or malaria. Three days later, his pardon was finally issued.
While the only known location of the “Nativity of St. Francis and St. Lawrence” remains at the top of the FBI’s most wanted list, a reproduction was recently created by the art studio Factum Arte using a 4x5-inch photograph as a guide. The replica was unveiled in December 2015 and now hangs at the Oratory of San Lorenzo at the scene of the crime, saving a place for when—if—the lost masterpiece is finally found.