Palermo bears many wounds from the mafia's post-WWII reign of terror but none more poignant than the empty gilt frame in Oratorio di San Lorenzo from which Caravaggio's Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence was stolen in 1969. Sitting above the altar surrounded by Giacomo Serpotta's sculptures, the empty frame was a shocking reminder of a crime that's still on the FBI's top 10 unsolved art thefts.
Custodians of the oratory found the sight so painful they hung a bad reprint, which only made the loss more acute. "It was a scar," says Italian art expert Peter Glidewell, the driving force behind a painstaking project to recreate the painting using old photographs and the latest 3D technology.
Dubbed Caravaggio 2.0, it culminated in an emotional unveiling in Palermo in December. "The harm hasn't been cured but there was a relief that an open wound at least had a bandage on it," says artist Adam Lowe, whose Madrid-based studio, Factum Arte, undertook the project. It posed numerous challenges including how to describe something that wasn't a reproduction because there was nothing to copy. "I call it a performance of Caravaggio in 2015," says Lowe.
The oratory can again be experienced as the organic work of art intended by sculptor Serpotta when he created his glorious stuccoes in contrast to the more sombre Caravaggio painted 100 years before. Some Palermitani disagreed with the intervention arguing the "scar" meant people would not forget the crime perpetrated by the mafia. But the oratory feels more loved and people are flocking there. Lowe is now trying to recreate plundered Serpotta statues. He hopes Factum's first "performance" of a Serpotta will be unveiled this European summer.
Oratorio di San Lorenzo, Via dell'Immacolatella 5, Palermo, Sicily.