The Curious Case of the Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence by Caravaggio
by Anita Di Rienzo in Milan
In 1936 Walter Benjamin published The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, a short essay on the reproducibility of artistic artefacts through the technological innovations of the 20th century and the consequent repercussions on the art scene. The central idea of the essay was based on the concept of the aura, meant as the uniqueness and the intrinsic value always present in every artwork. Yet, more than 80 years after the first release of the paper, the question that arises is whether or not it is still legitimate to consider the mechanical reproducibility of works of art as a factor which prevents the presence of the aura. The intricate story of the Caravaggesque Nativity of Palermo could, however, lead to an answer.
The Sicilian altarpiece of the Nativity by Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio, has been for years at the centre of heated debates regarding its dating and commission. But since October 1969 discussion of these issues has been overshadowed because the fate of this work of art was shrouded in mystery.
The canvas, which was displayed in the Oratory of St Lawrence in Palermo, Italy, depicted the birth of Christ through a rich palette of bright colours. The miraculous event took place in a hut with a thatched roof over crossed wooden beams in the presence of St Lawrence, (standing on the left in a yellow cloak), a shepherd, St Francis, and St Joseph (the latter is on the right of the painting). The Virgin Mary, melancholic and weak, was placed in the middle of the composition while, visibly tired, she rested her gaze on the newborn baby Jesus. Just above the Child an angel with a scroll reciting Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest), occupied the upper portion of the painting, measuring the space with his arms and thus giving dynamism and depth to the scene. To complete the joyful event the ox and the donkey were depicted in the semi-darkness of the shed.
The Nativity was one of four early 17th-century canvases left by Caravaggio in Sicily (the others were Burial of Saint Lucy, Raising of Lazarus, and Adoration of the Shepherds) and it differed from the others precisely because of the use of colour, the treatment of light sources and the spontaneous attitude in which the characters were represented. Indeed, a distinctive feature of Caravaggio was his capacity to take inspiration from ordinary people for the protagonists in his compositions, immortalizing them in spontaneous poses and thus succeeding in making his artworks come alive. Perhaps the irresistible charm of this canvas made someone fall in love with it – steal it in order to possess it. More likely it was stolen because it was a very valuable painting by Caravaggio and was inside an Oratory with no surveillance systems. Who knows?
What is clear is that sometime during on the night of 17th October 1969, some thieves broke into the oratory through a door with a defective lock, cut the canvas out of the frame with a razor blade and vanished without a trace. A theft foretold. The next day, when the disappearance of the painting from its support was discovered, it took several hours before the theft was reported to the police. Therefore the thieves had about 12 hours of advantage to cover long distances… or maybe to not cover them at all. The case proved complicated from the outset. The investigators identified two possible perpetrators of the theft: a gang of inexperienced thieves who were hoping to get rich by selling the painting, or the Mafia. The second lead of investigation soon began to seem the more promising. The area of the oratory was controlled by Pippo Calò’s family, the future cashier of Cosa Nostra (Sicilian Mafia). As the months went by, various ransom demands and confessions – mostly from mobsters – were made, but not a hint of the whereabouts of the stolen canvas.
Today, after more than half a century, the alleged movements of the Nativity by Caravaggio remain one of the most fascinating mysteries of the art world, which continues to get excited about ongoing breakthroughs in the case.
This series of unfortunate events led to an interesting initiative in 2015, when the television broadcasting company Sky commissioned a replica of Caravaggio’s Nativity from Factum Art, a not-for-profit organisation founded in 2009 in Madrid whose mission is ‘constructing a bridge between new technology and craft skills’. It has been an innovative collaboration between traditional art history and the most advanced technologies available today. The aim was to create a reproduction of the painting using multi-layer digital printing on canvas. The operation, known as ‘Operazione Caravaggio’, started with an in-depth research phase in which scholars studied the techniques, pigments and styles of the three canvases of the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of St Louis of the French, in Rome. The overlap between the pictorial surface detected by analysis of these paintings with some black and white plates from the ISCR (Higher Institute for Conservation and Restoration) and a colour photo of the painting taken in 1968 by Enzo Brai, an Italian photographer, has made it possible to map a truthful pictorial surface. Therefore, the direct response of technology and its digital artisans has rematerialized the Nativity, bringing it back from a digital to a physical state.
As Edgar Degas said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see”, and the case of the Sicilian altarpiece seems representative of this statement. Indeed, although figurative art is closely linked to the medium, technology has made it possible to re-establish emotional and religious bonds with the painting, though with the loss of what Walter Benjamin calls the aura, as well as devaluation of the painting’s monetary worth. But, while we are waiting for the original Nativity to be recovered, the print produced by Factum Art can be considered as a masterpiece of our time, worthy of public admiration.
Volume 34 no 6 July / August 2020