Fifty years after the theft of "The Nativity" in Palermo, an interview with the parish priest of the oratory of San Lorenzo, filmed in 2001, reveals unpublished details about the circumstances of the theft.
His disappearance has given rise to countless speculations. On the night of 17-18 October 1969, a painting by the Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio, The Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, was stolen from the San Lorenzo Oratory in Palermo, Sicily. For decades, several theories circulated: the most pessimistic thought that the work had been eaten by rats, after having rotted in a barn.
Fifty years later, the Nativity is back in the news and the mystery surrounding the theft is being cleared up. In an interview filmed in 2001 by the director Massimo D'Anolfi, the parish priest of the oratory of San Lorenzo, Rocco Benedetto, reveals unpublished details about the circumstances of the theft. In particular, he claims that one of the Sicilian mafia families, Cosa Nostra, is behind what the FBI considers to be one of the ten most important art thefts.
The interview with Rocco Benedetto, who died in 2003, had remained in Massimo D'Anolfi's archives until the Sicilian association Amici dei Musei, which promotes the restoration of the San Lorenzo oratory, learned in 2018 that the priest had confided in the director. The latter had not measured the significance of the parish priest's revelations: "To be honest, I thought that the information contained in this interview was already in the possession of the authorities."
In this interview, the priest recounts having received an initial letter a few months after the theft. In it, Cosa Nostra claimed to be in possession of the painting and made a proposal: "If you want to negotiate [its return], you must publish an advertisement in the Giornale di Sicilia [a Sicilian daily]". Rocco Benedetto passed the message on to the Superintendent of Cultural Affairs in Palermo, who had the advertisement published in the newspaper.
Two weeks later, the parish priest received a new, more worrying letter. "The letter was accompanied by a piece of the painting, a very small piece of the canvas, to make me understand that they really had [the painting]," says Rocco Benedetto. Cosa Nostra asked for a new advertisement to be published in the Giornale di Sicilia. "The Mafia did with this painting what they do with kidnap victims: they sent a piece of it, just as they send a finger or an ear of a kidnap victim", summarises Massimo D'Anolfi.
The priest returned to the Superintendent of Cultural Affairs in Palermo and left him the letter and the piece of the painting. But the superintendent flatly refused to publish a new advert and even denounced Rocco Benedetto to the police, suspecting him of having ordered the theft. The police investigated, but found nothing conclusive: "They even took my fingerprints. Later, the superintendent admitted that he had made a mistake and apologised," says the priest.
The parish priest's thesis confirmed almost 50 years later
The parish priest obtained the first confirmation of Cosa Nostra's involvement when a priest from Carini, 20 km from Palermo, called him in the early 1970s to say that he had seen a photograph of The Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence. The priest had a painting by a Tuscan master restored and then stolen, and contacted local mafiosi to get his painting back. A young man came to him with two photos: one of his painting, and another of the Nativity. The parish priest of Carini recovered his painting.
Rocco Benedetto informed the police of this development and realised that "they had known for a long time that the painting was in the province of Palermo". "The mafia used it to show their power," he adds.
However, the involvement of the mafia was only confirmed in May 2018. Seventeen years after the parish priest's statements to Massimo D'Anolfi, Italian investigators revealed that a repentant mafia member, Gaetano Grado, had confirmed to them that Gaetano Badalamenti, a mafioso from the Palermo family of Cinisi, had been in possession of The Nativity and that a member of his clan had been in contact with an art dealer in Switzerland, where the painting was now likely to be found.
"The Nativity" displayed at Cosa Nostra meetings
In the 1990s, Salvatore Cancemi, another repentant, had already confirmed to anti-mafia prosecutors that The Nativity was displayed at meetings between Cosa Nostra leaders as a symbol of their prestige.
According to investigators, the painting could have been transferred to Switzerland after Gaetano Badalamenti's death on 29 April 2004 in a US penitentiary, where he had been serving a 45-year sentence since 1987 for his involvement in the Pizza Connection, an organisation specialising in heroin trafficking to New York, whose turnover between 1975 and 1984 was estimated at 1.65 billion dollars.
As the painting was never found, a copy was reinstalled in the oratory in 2015. In 2018, Rosy Bindi, the president of Italy's anti-mafia commission, said of the painting, "We hope to find it and bring it home to Palermo."
A few months before the theft, he was visited by a RAI journalist who wanted to interview him about the Caravaggio painting for a programme devoted to "forgotten masterpieces". The priest refused, saying that if the public learned of the existence of such a painting, it would be stolen, since no security measures had been taken to protect it. Nevertheless, RAI obtained permission from the famous Superintendent of Cultural Affairs in Palermo to make the report. A few months after the report was broadcast, the painting was stolen.
Source: Le monde