By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
The Mafia, it’s claimed, were all over it like a rash. But were they?
A story with more slack ends and dangling threads than Joseph’s Coat of Many Colours. Zelda Fitzgerald said, “It’s the loose ends with which men hang themselves.” After fifty-three years, it’s getting more and more unlikely that will happen.
Down a paved street as narrow as a slice of salami is a door that leads into a courtyard that fronts a Catholic oratory called San Lorenzo. Number 5 Via Immacolatella is part of La Kalsa, one of Palermo’s oldest district, down near the waterfront. The church is over four hundred years old. Originally a meeting place of a pious lay brotherhood, over the centuries, it is witness to many historic events in Sicily’s largest city, nothing would have prepared it for what happened one stormy night in 1969.
Newspaper reporting later, showed sometime on the evening of the 17 or early hours of the 18 October, a painting hung above the altar disappeared. The mystery even starts with the timing of the theft.
It was last seen by the public at mass on Sunday, 12 October, but not reported missing until Saturday 18 October, when caretakers arrived to prepare the church for the following day’s service. The police investigation claimed the theft had occurred that Friday night. The painting could well have been out of Sicily by then. Their conclusion was two men had entered the church, removed the painting from its frame, and vanished into the night. An important police report on the theft subsequently disappeared. And that is just the beginning of a trail of intrigue and confusion that lasts to this day.
It is the one of most notorious art crimes in history, second only to the Mona Lisa theft in 1911.
The painting named in English, Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco, referred to as Nativity, although sometimes The Adoration, shows the newly born Jesus, surrounded by crouching figures, and an angel above the scene. The artist, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio,* had painted it in 1609, although some art sources dispute its dating. It is nine feet by almost seven feet, framed, and high above the floor. It had adorned the church wall for 350 years and its theft sent shock-waves through the ecclesiastical and art worlds. Experts value it at north of $20 million. Enough to satisfy the greed of any Mafioso. **
How it disappeared is a conundrum. The thieves needed access to a locked church, which may have been through a window with a faulty catch. Then the ability to remove such a large painting high above the ground and safely store into some kind of vehicle. Some sources claim two men driving a Piaggio Ape carried the theft out. A weird scooter with two rear wheels and a canopy. It would have been ideal to navigate the tiny, torturous streets around the church and have enough room to store the canvas.
The mystery is how these men, unless they came with ladders, could have managed the removal of the piece, leaving no traces of paint on the frame, and not damaging the delicate plasterworks surround. It all seems to have been the work of a gang of professionals rather that two thieves of the night. They stole one other item that night, a rug, which the thieves probably used to roll up the artwork to protect it from the heavy rain falling outside. While doing this, they were also damaging it.
The Italian government, incensed by this criminal act, which happened during an anti-Mafia crusade period, created the establishment of the world’s first dedicated art police force, a branch of the Carabinieri called the Tutela Patrimonio Culturale (TPC)–the Division for the Protection of Cultural Heritage. The TPC is now the most effective art crime squad in the world, and the largest, with over 300 full-time agents. It holds a database, Leonardo, that contains information on over four million stolen artworks, most of which are still missing. The Nativity remains one of them.
A few months after the theft, Benedetto Rocco received a letter delivered to his home. The Adoration had become a victim of kidnappers, it would seem.
Rocco was the parish priest of the church of San Lorenzo and the letter claimed “they” had it, instructing the priest to place an advert, which they enclosed, in the Giornale di Sicilia, the island’s daily newspaper to show the Church is prepared to do a deal. A second letter followed, enclosing a piece of the painting, almost like a finger, to show they really had the body of the victim.
Rocco contacted the superintendent of Palermo’s cultural affairs, who in a classic bureaucratic misinterpretation, perceived the priest to be the actual thief and reported him to the police. From that point on, the die is cast and things went from bad to worse.
It was the police report on Benedetto Rocco that mysteriously disappears.
By the time the law had investigated the priest and cleared him, whoever had the painting had taken a different course, and according to information that emerged years later, approached a potential buyer in Switzerland.
From this point, the only sources of information would be Mafia informants. And there are heaps of them, all offering their own, perhaps somewhat slanted versions of what happened. The names of the Mafiosi that emerge in the years ahead connected to the theft shows almost a who’s who of the movers and shakers from 1970 onwards.
The first to offer evidence about the art work and its disappearance is Francesco Marino Mannoia (right). A member of the loosing side in the Mafia War of the early 1980s, when being debriefed in 1989, by Giovanni Falcone, one of the leading magistrates in the great Mafia trial of Palermo, he mentioned that as an eighteen-year-old novice in the criminal underworld, he had been part of the team that had stolen the artefact. He remembered the painting was so badly damaged by its removal that it was worthless.
Another source claimed the picture had been in the possession of Rosario Ricobbono, the Mafia boss of Partanna Mondello, a district to the north of Palermo Centrale. Francesco De Carlo, the former boss of Altofonte during the 1970s, maintained he had seen it in Ricobbono’s home. He had held it until they murdered him in 1982, one of the tail-end casualties of the war. It then found its way to Gerlando Alberti, a long established, powerful inner-city boss who they called u paccaré, the imperturbable one. He tried to sell it off, found it too difficult, and buried it somewhere. His nephew, Vincenzo La Piana, told the police where to look, but they only dug up dirt.
Gaspare Spatuzza, a killer for the Brancaccio Family to the south of the city, claimed after he turned and became a government informer, that they had stored the painting in a barn, nibbled by rats and pigs and then disposed of it. He said this detail came from his boss, Filippo Graviano, while they were both in prison. Somehow, the canvas is in the hands of the Pullarà brothers (Mafia bosses of the Santa Maria di Gesù clan), who had hidden it in a stable where it becomes a ruin. This had happened in the 1980s.
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Salvatore Cancemi, boss of a mandemento, (a group of three clans) in Palermo, and the first to accuse Silvio Berlusconi of links to the Mafia, claimed he had seen the work displayed during a meeting of the Commission, the ruling body that managed the activities and settled disputes within the hundred Mafia families across Sicily. They exhibit it, he claimed, to show their power. To show that nothing was beyond their reach.
Pietro Vernego, another mob boss, sometimes referred to as “Bazooka Eyes,” was the mastermind behind the theft, according to other sources. He then passed it onto another boss who tried to sell it, failed and subsequently destroyed it. In one of the many ironies that fill the handbook on Mafia lore, Marino Mannoia married his daughter.
Giovanni Brusca, the boss of the small town of San Giuseppe Jato, the one who pressed the trigger, that lit the bomb that killed Giovanni Falcone in 1992 offered to have The Nativity returned if the law gave him and other major bosses in prison some slack with their sentences. The law refused; the painting stayed lost.
Some experts claim stolen works of art in Italy are almost talismanic and a Lydian stone for gangsters wanting to offer information to the state in return for favors given in return.
Gaetano Grado, a member of the Santa Maria di Gesù family under Stefano Bontade, the first family boss killed in the Mafia war, is the one who points the finger at Gaetano Badalamenti, who is the one most researchers believe might have been primus inter pares, the first among equals, in the cast of Mafiosi linked to the theft and then disposal of the Caravaccio.
Badalamenti (right) was an old school mob to the pores of his skin. Better known as one of the leading Sicilian men of honor, tried and convicted in the famous Pizza Connection Trial in New York that ran from 1985 until 1987; at the time of the theft, he was boss of the Cinisi Mafia Family, located to the north and west of Palermo City. He assumed the role of boss after his predecessor, Cesare Manzella, died in a car bombing during the Mafia war of the early 1960s.
A complex, contentious and powerful figure in the Palermo mob, known by his sobriquet, Tano, or zu Tanu, “uncle Tano.” Following the Mafia War, he became involved in drug trafficking and often visited America, where his brother, Emmanuel, was a crew boss running rackets in the Monroe area to the south of Detroit using a supermarket and gas station as a legitimate front to hide his illegal activities. He had emigrated to America following he end of World War Two.
In the late 1970s, the manoeuvrings of Salvatore Riina, who had been his protege and would become the head of Corleone’s Mafia family, oust Uncle Tano from his position on the Commission, and “put outside the family.” Expelled. The only way to exit the mob, outside death or changing sides, and becoming a government informant. Riina was beginning his journey to become the boss of all Sicily's Mafia, and Badalamenti was an obstacle to his ambitions.
He moves to Brazil after 1978, and lives there travelling to meet contacts around the world operating his drug ring, until his arrest in Spain in May 1984, and extradition to New York to be part of one of the largest trials in American criminal history. After seventeen years in prison, he dies of heart failure in 2004. He never mentions anything about the painting. Ever.
Benedetto Rocco always claimed that from the contacts he had, the painting was in the possession of Badalamenti, who had tried to sell it to a dealer in Switzerland.
Time is running out. The people who discovered the theft were dead. Monsignor Rocco is dead. As is Badalamenti.
The Nativity (photo below) is listed to this day as number two on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s top ten art crimes.
Did it ever involve the Mafia?
Ludovico Gippetta, president of Extroart, a Palermo based cultural organization, claimed, “A family so powerful that the police couldn’t knock on their door” arranged the theft. And he wasn’t referring to a Mafia one.
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British journalist Peter Watson claimed he tracked it down, but it got buried under rubble during the November 1980 earthquake in Irpinia, near Naples, while he was negotiating with the Camorra, the Neapolitan version of the Mafia, to exchange it for drugs and arms.
The late Charley Hill, formerly a Detective Inspector in the London’s Metropolitan Police Art and Antique Squad, who helped recover many stolen painting over the years, before his death in January this year, believed the painting was still in Sicily. When interviewed, he claimed, “I suspect the man who has the final say on this is the man who’s still on the run, Diabolik.”
That’s the nickname of Mafioso Matteo Messina Denaro, a fugitive from justice in Western Sicily for thirty years. Allegedly, the current big boss of the island’s honored society.
In October 2018, the Vatican organized a conference about the missing Caravaggio. They dedicated it to Father Pino Puglisi, murdered by the Mafia in 1993. His killer was Gaspare Spatuzza, the same man who claimed the painting had been the meal of rats and pigs.
Although art experts and specialists who spend their working lives tracking down and finding lost and stolen works believe the theft is arranged by commercial contractors, somehow, some way, the trail leads us invariably to the men of the Mafia.
Sicily being Sicily, that is easy to understand.
* There was a small group of works created during the artist’s brief lifetime (he died at 40). He only painted four canvasses while he was in Sicily, hoping for a papal pardon after having murdered Ranuccio Tomassoni, apparently about a lost game of tennis but actually in a row over their love interests, in which the artist attempted to castrate his rival.
** Its true value may be ten times that. Another Biblical painting by Caravaggio, found by accident in an attic in 2014, sold at auction in 2019 for $170 million.
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