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MYSTERY OF THE LOST CARAVAGGIO

NATIVITY WITH
ST. FRANCIS AND ST. LAWRENCE
(1600)

Stolen in Palermo by the mafia

Caravaggio, Cardsharps (1594)
Caravaggio, Crucifixion of St. Peter (1600-1601)
Caravaggio, Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (1610)

"NATIVITY" – CARAVAGGIO AND HIS LIFE OF LIGHT AND SHADE

Caravaggio is one of the most famous and beloved artists in art history. His works are known in the whole world and his tormented life, filled with excesses, mysteries and dark, bloody episodes has turned him into a true and timeless legend.

Identified as the master of light and shade, Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio, is a rebel of the artistic landscape in the the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that reinvented painting and became one of a kind.In his work, the light spreads on one single level with high intensity and substantiality, whereas the shadow is found on multiple levels: the artist often starts from a very dark background during the preparation of the canvas that therefore becomes the basis for best representing the impenetrable obscurity of his works. Other times, the shadow is resolved by coats of veiling painted on the darkest parts or by shades of black that are painted with the same intensity as the light colours, thus creating an strong tonal contrast.

Caravaggio, Cardsharps (1594)
Caravaggio, Crucifixion of St. Peter (1600-1601)
Caravaggio, Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (1610)
View of the Saint Lawrence Oratory in Palermo with the "Nativity" by Caravaggio
View of the Saint Lawrence Oratory in Palermo with the "Nativity" by Caravaggio
View of the Saint Lawrence Oratory in Palermo with the "Nativity" by Caravaggio

In this work, one can find all of Caravaggio’s unique style that fulfils a “Nativity” of magnificent completeness and sensitivity. The painting is a human representation of baby Jesus with his mother. We do not know the exact dating of the work. Some historians believe that “Nativity” belongs to the Roman period of Caravaggio and that it was therefore transported to Palermo at a later point in time, whereas others support the theory that it was produced during his short Sicilian period in 1609 and therefore created on the island after he fled Malta.

The painting was hung inside the St. Lawrence oratory in Palermo until 1969, the year in which it was stolen and went missing forever.

View of the Saint Lawrence Oratory in Palermo with the "Nativity" by Caravaggio
View of the Saint Lawrence Oratory in Palermo with the "Nativity" by Caravaggio
View of the Saint Lawrence Oratory in Palermo with the "Nativity" by Caravaggio
Kate Bryan, Art Historian
View of the Saint Lawrence Oratory in Palermo, after the theft of the "Nativity" by Caravaggio
View of the Saint Lawrence Oratory in Palermo, after the theft of the "Nativity" by Caravaggio
The original framework of the "Nativity" by Caravaggio
Detail of the original framework of "Nativity" by Caravaggio

THE MASTERPIECE IN THE HANDS OF THE MAFIA

Palermo, 1969. On the rainy night of the 16th October an unknown group of people entered the St. Lawrence oratory through the flimsy entrance door, secured only with an old latch lock. Once inside the building, in front of them rose the big canvas of the “Nativity“. It was rapidly taken from its frame, detached from the framework and rolled up to disappear forever.

After that night, the work became one of the 10 most researched paintings in the world and the theories about its disappearance have followed one another without resolution.

View of the Saint Lawrence Oratory in Palermo, after the theft of the "Nativity" by Caravaggio
View of the Saint Lawrence Oratory in Palermo, after the theft of the "Nativity" by Caravaggio
The original framework of the "Nativity" by Caravaggio
Detail of the original framework of "Nativity" by Caravaggio
During the Andreotti trial, the mafia repentant Marino Mannoia speaks for the first time about the robbery of the "Nativity" by Caravaggio
Mafioso Stefano Bontade, murdered by the corleonese during the war between the clans that broke out in Sicily in 1981
The corleonese mafia boss Totò Riina, involved in the theft

The versions of the story are numerous and some are more probable than others. But they all have one detail in common: whatever might have happened to the painting, the theft had the Mafia’s signature.According to the key mafia witness Marino Mannoia, the painting was stolen to be sold, but in the end, it was destroyed because of a cancelled deal with the buyer. Yet others believe that the painting was passed on from mafia family to mafia family and that it was used as a symbol of power during the summits of the organised crime. Still others maintain that the painting has been lost forever, ending up as pig feed, being burned or, as the English journalist Peter Watson suggested, destroyed in the Irpina earthquake during an exchange between the Mafia and the Camorra.

Since that night, almost 50 years ago, many have speculated about the disappearance of this masterpiece and nurtured the mystery.Despite the alleged sightings and warnings, all of which have been devoid of any truth, “Nativity” by Caravaggio is today still very far away from the place where it originally hung.

During the Andreotti trial, the mafia repentant Marino Mannoia speaks for the first time about the robbery of the "Nativity" by Caravaggio
Mafioso Stefano Bontade, murdered by the corleonese during the war between the clans that broke out in Sicily in 1981
The corleonese mafia boss Totò Riina, involved in the theft
Pietro Grasso, Former President of Italian Senate
Detail of the painting
Maria's face in black and white

THE REBIRTH AND THE RETURN

For the re-creation of “Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence” by Caravaggio the Factum Arte team started with a colour photo of 127x102mm that was taken 1967 by Enzo Brai.The file was modified to correspond to the dimension of the painting and printed with a resolution of 254dpi. Using particular Photoshop filters, it was subsequently possible to remove noise, stains, evidence of the film’s grain, digital dust and other alterations to obtain a file that was then printed at a 1:1 scale.

The Factum Arte team then drew from the numerous information that it had already collected from the re-creation of three other works by Caravaggio: “The Calling of St. Matthew”, “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” and “St. Matthew and the Angel”. The characteristics of these paintings had been registered in two different phases. First the works were photographed in small pieces at a 1:1 scale at 700dpi and then were then digitally merged into one single file at later point of time.

Detail of the painting
Maria's face in black and white
Details of various sections of the painting
Controlling of some details on Factum Arte's rematerialization
Samples and materials for the recreation in the Factum Arte studio

During the studying of the three paintings of the Contarelli Chappell in San Luigi dei Francesi the Factum Arte experts had furthermore elaborated accurate chromatic scales, capable of guaranteeing the exact shades, tones and colours. This information turned out to be indispensable for the recreation of “Nativity“.

Furthermore, the Factum Arte team wheedled essential information about the brushstrokes and the character of the surface, by studying the black and white photo that was taken during the last restauration by the Instituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro (ISCR).

The pictures from the ISCR and the high-resolution ones in colour from San Luigi dei Francesi were integrated and subsequently mapped onto the photography by Enzo Brai.In doing so the robust and characteristic brushstrokes of Caravaggio emerged and, working on the levels of contrast and luminosity it was possible to identify details that seemed to have been gone missing.

Details of various sections of the painting
Controlling of some details on Factum Arte's rematerialization
Samples and materials for the recreation in the Factum Arte studio
Peter Glidewell, Art expert
Factum Arte uses sophisticated technologies for the recreation
Various samples in the Factum Arte Studio in Madrid
Test prints of "Nativity"
Printing process of the recreated painting

To be able to guarantee the correct tonal range and colour density for the re-creation, the numerous chromatic annotations obtained from the work on the Saint Matthew paintings were used. The information on the colour was transferred digitally onto the “Nativity” and printed many times until the perfect correspondence with the chromatic samples was reached.

To fill some blanks in the data and to give materiality to the photograph the experts worked by hand with oil colours on a printed canvas at a 1:1 scale. These were then again photographed in high resolution at a 1:1 scale at 600dpi with a Clauss “pan and tilt” and a camera with a 600mm lens. Once the colours were verified through comparison with the prepared samples, the team prepared the canvas covering it with a coat of animal glue and an oily imprimatura.

This was first printed with a linear file derived from the original at a 1:1 scale, creating a sketch that was then used to position the texture on the surface of the painting, thus imitating the canvases specific preparation method used by Caravaggio and reaching the level of relief of some white areas. Lastly, the work was digitally printed and transported to Palermo where the canvas was stretched out, varnished and hung back into its original frame from the St. Lawrence oratory.

Factum Arte uses sophisticated technologies for the recreation
Various samples in the Factum Arte Studio in Madrid
Test prints of "Nativity"
Printing process of the recreated painting
Bernardo Tortorici di Raffadali, Amici Musei Siciliani Association

RECREATION OF
NATIVITY WITH
ST. FRANCIS AND ST. LAWRENCE

Digital Recreation of “Nativity” with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (1600) by Caravaggio
2017 Pigment and gesso on canvas
Recreation by Factum Arte