Caravaggio’s Nativity: Hunting a stolen masterpiece
Source:BBC Author:Alastair Sooke Date: 2014-02-27 Size:
It is the art crime of the 20th Century. Forty-four years after its theft, what do experts think happened to the Italian painter’s masterwork? Alastair Sooke investigates...

Detail from Caravaggio's Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco

In the autumn of 1608, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the most original Italian painter of the 17th Century, was on the run.

Tempestuous and arrogant, Caravaggio was forever getting into brawls. He swaggered about with a sword at his side and once flung a plate of scalding artichokes in the face of a waiter, supposedly because some of them were cooked in butter rather than oil.

Yet even by his own combustible standards two years earlier he had crossed a line, when he killed a man in a quarrel over a gambling debt at a tennis match. Before he could be charged with murder, he fled Rome and spent the rest of his short life as a fugitive from justice.

That autumn in 1608, following spells in Naples and Malta, he arrived in Sicily. He stayed on the island for around a year, sleeping fitfully with a dagger by his side, and painting several late masterpieces, including the Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco.

Caravaggio's Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco

For more than three-and-a-half centuries, the canvas hung in its original location above the altar in the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo – until a stormy October night in 1969, when thieves cut it from its frame. Unseen since by anyone beyond the criminal underworld, the painting, which is valued at $20 million, is on the FBI’s list of the top 10 unsolved art crimes. Today, a milky reproduction of the painting hangs in its place in the Oratory – a sickly ghost of a lost masterpiece.

According to art historian Danielle Carrabino, who is writing a book about Caravaggio’s time in Sicily, the disappearance of the Nativity has done “immense” damage to Western art. “Caravaggio was only 39 when he died [in 1610], so we don’t have the benefit of a lifetime of works,” she explains. “In fact, we have so few works by him – only around 70 paintings – that even to lose one is a great loss to our understanding.”

Photographs of the Nativity reveal that Caravaggio, who was famous for using ordinary people as models, tackled a traditional Christian subject in a decidedly untraditional fashion.

“The painting is very dramatic,” says Carrabino. “Christ seems like a weary newborn, almost cast on the hay. His mother appears dishevelled, exhausted from the birth. This isn’t only the scene of the birth of the saviour, but a scene of a mother who has just given birth to any child. By relating the scene to our own lives, Caravaggio is able to reach a larger audience. He has even left space for us to join the semi-circle of adoration, so that we really feel we’re part of this event. It’s very humble.”

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[Editor] 孙雯