Everyone loves a good heist story, don’t they?

The clever plan. The priceless, or at least extremely expensive, objects of desire. The high stakes. Oh, the drama!

It has all the makings of a good story and a good puzzle combined. Which is probably why books and movies capitalize on the concept. Just add an attractive hollywood star or 2 and watch the money roll in.

(See related: Why stories are irresistible and The secrets of puzzles)

So I thought a real life caper would be a great topic for an article. What makes it even better is that it includes the subsequent recovery of the stolen item, Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome Writing.

So, read on, and learn about a burglary that eventually ended happily-ever-after.

 

Caravaggio, the man

Caravaggio

Ottavio Leoni. A portrait of the Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. c. 1621. The Marucelliana Library. Credit: “Bild-Ottavio Leoni, Caravaggio”, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The artist known as Caravaggio was born Michelangelo Merisi in the town of Caravaggio in Lombardy, Italy.

Born in 1571, he was only 6 when his father, Fermo Merisi, and many other family members died of bubonic plague. His mother passed away several years after that leaving him orphaned.

He then had to fend for himself and befriended a group of painters and swordsmen. They lived their lives according to the motto nec spe, nec metu meaning ‘without hope, without fear.’ His tragic childhood shaped the man he would become, as violence and imprisonment followed him throughout his life.

At the age of 11, he served an apprenticeship as a painter in Milan. He eventually moved to Rome where he continued to work for various artists and began to build a name as a painter in his own right.

Caravaggio was a prolific painter. He could finish a painting in 2 weeks and quickly developed quite a number of works.

As his name grew, so did his ability to stir up trouble. He was known for his temper as well as his love of drinking and gambling. He spent time in and out of jail for various infractions of the law. He walked a fine line between famous and infamous.

The most pivotal moment in his life happened in 1606 when he killed Ranuccio Tomassoni in a fight. It is not certain why the fight erupted, but it could have been over Tomassoni’s wife, Lavinia. Following the murder, he managed to escape Rome, but he spent the rest of his life running and paying for the crime.

First, he fled to Naples. He moved from there to Malta. He had hopes that being knighted would help him secure a pardon. His plan worked, initially. He was knighted by the Knights of St. John in exchange for commissioned work. It was in Malta that he painted Saint Jerome Writing. Unfortunately, his temper got the best of him and he was once again thrown in jail for fighting a senior knight. He escaped from jail and Malta thus defrocking himself in absentia.

Upon hearing that negotiations with the pope had been successful, headed back to Rome. He would get his pardon in exchange for his artwork. His trip back took him via Sicily and Naples. He encountered many troubles along the way, including imprisonment and the loss of all his belongings. Ultimately, he never made it back and died en route in July of 1610.

After his death, it was found that he had high levels of lead in his bones. It was said to be enough to drive him mad or at least be the cause of unstable and unbalanced behavior. Paint had a high level of lead in it at the time, so this isn’t completely unexpected. We have all heard about how lead affected Vincent van Gogh.

 

Caravaggio, the artist

Caravaggio had a distinctive style that is easy to identify even for an untrained eye such as mine. The contrasts of light and shadow is very bold.

His paintings, like his life, are filled with strong emotion and shock. He loved drama. He used prostitutes as models and since he often worked on religious pieces, they were portrayed as saints. This didn’t sit too well with the church as you can imagine.

His commissioned work often portrayed religious scenes as the action happened. It made the viewer feel as if they were present at the event. It was, and is, very powerful.

He was also keenly aware of how the image would be viewed and painted the image for that specific perspective. Many artists didn’t do that. This allowed his large high-hanging chapel pieces to stand apart from others.

There is speculation that his techniques may have included camera obscura. (To read more about camera obscura, see related: Vermeer paintings: More than meets the eye?) Evidence pointing to this possibility are:

  • he owned a large mirror and glass shield
  • he didn’t use underdrawings as a guide
  • distortions in proportion that appear in much of his work

Evidence pointing to the use of other similar techniques using mirrors or lenses include:

  • identical images replicated in different sizes
  • very specific and multiple sources of light in scenery
  • images reversed (such as a right handed model appearing left handed in a painting)

Much of his later works included very dark themes including death. It is unknown if it was his violent life showing itself in his work, being tormented by the murder he committed, or the lead poisoning. Whatever techniques he used, it was successful.

His paintings today are as stunning and revered as they were back then, if not more so.

 

Saint Jerome Writing

There are actually 2 paintings associated with the name Saint Jerome Writing by Caravaggio. The one referred to in this article is the Saint Jerome Writing completed in 1607-1608. Sometimes it is also referred to as Saint Jerome or Malta Saint Jerome Writing. (Shown slightly cropped in the featured image as well as an uncropped version below.)

It was likely commissioned by Fr. Ippolito Malaspina Marchese de Fosdinovo as we can tell by the coat of arms in the lower right-hand corner of the painting. After his death in 1624, it was donated to the St John’s church.

Saint Jerome Writing by Caravaggio

Caravaggio. Saint Jerome Writing. c.1607-1608. Oil on canvas. 46″x62″. St. John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta. Credit: “CaravaggioJeromeValletta” by Caravaggio, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The other Saint Jerome Writing contains similar subject matter, with the exception that Saint Jerome appears much older and the scene is set up slightly differently. This Saint Jerome Writing painting was completed in Rome between 1605-1606, before the fateful murder that changed Caravaggio’s life.

The setting of the painting is serious and contemplative. Saint Jerome was a priest and theologian best known for translating the bible from Greek to Latin. He is considered the patron saint of translators, librarians and encyclopedists.

On the table in the scene are several objects bearing religious significance. The stone and crucifix symbolizing penance and meditation. While the skull represents the mortality of man.

There is a candle on the table, but it isn’t lit and provides no light on the scene. With Caravaggio’s trademark contrast of light and dark, he highlights St. Jerome and the skull with the rest of the scene fading into the background.

 

The heist

The story begins on the last days of the year in 1984 in Valletta, Malta. The location, St. John’s Co-Cathedral, or more specifically in the museum of St. John’s Co-Cathedral.

Because of the holiday season, there was only one guide working at the time.

Thieves put a chain across the entrance to the balcony with a sign stating work was being done.

Once they had access to the painting, they lowered the frame from its position and simply cut the canvas out of the frame. They rolled it up and made a clean departure.

Then, there was silence. For 2 years. No one heard anything about the painting. It was assumed it was lost for good.

Then one day, out of nowhere, a young man delivered an envelope for Fr. Marius Zerafa. It was marked ‘personal.’ Fr. Marius Zerafa was the Director of Museums in Malta. Although he didn’t have a direct connection with St. John’s Co-Cathedral, he was a priest. The thieves must have felt he was the right man to contact.

Inside the envelope was a cassette tape and a polaroid picture of the Saint Jerome Writing. The recording stated that they had the Caravaggio painting and would return it for 500,000 maltese lire. The voices also threatened that he should not contact the police or the media. They would contact him by telephone soon.

The next day, they telephoned the priest and gave him a password to authenticate his identity. This is when negotiations began to take place.

The priest didn’t contact the authorities at this time because he was unsure if the thieves were working with the police. He had no intention of paying the ransom, but was negotiating a lower ransom price to stall for time.

The phone calls continued and time passed. He worked to get his phone tapped in an attempt to track the calls. He drew out the phone calls with negotiation matters to allow enough time to trace the calls.

The thieves then began to extort the priest when they began to send him small pieces cut from the painting.

Finally, the calls were traced to a shoe factory in Marsa. Working with the ministry there, he was able to get details and photographs of those working at the factory.

This process had been going on for 8 months. It was time for the police to get involved.

The exchange was set. 250,000 maltese lire for the painting was the agreement.

The date was selected. August 4, the traditional day on which the Feast of St. Dominic.

The thieves were surprised when instead of a priest, they were greeted by police cars and helicopters. They were arrested.

It came out later that the thieves had been paid £5,000 to kidnap the priest at the exchange.

As it turns out, the thieves never did end up in jail. The thieves brought a constitutional case to court charging illegal wire-tapping. But in the end, there was no one left to prosecute for the crimes. The first thief died from a, possibly accidental, overdose. The other died as the case dragged on through the judicial system. I guess they will have to pay for their crimes in the afterlife.

As for Saint James Writing? It was damaged during the robbery and subsequent handling by the police. Let’s remember that the painting was hundreds of years old and rolled up. Yikes! This is the stuff of curators’ nightmares.

It was eventually restored by the Institute for Conservation and Restoration in Rome and returned to its home, St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta.

Wow! What a ride.

There is a wonderful podcast of the first-hand account from Fr. Marius Zerafa. You can find the link at the Malta Culture Guide.

 

Intrigued?

Pretty good mystery, huh? I just love the fact that a priest helped crack the case.

I also think it is crazy how Caravaggio used his paintings as currency for bribes on multiple occasions. So scandalous and corrupt! I guess times never change, ha ha!

If you enjoy reading about art, consider reading my other art related articles:

If you liked this article, think about subscribing to my free weekly online issues or sharing it with your friends. Thanks!

 

Resources

Caravaggio Biography from Biography.com

Caravaggio biography from Caravaggio Foundation

Caravaggios Secrets from Youtube

Caravaggio’s St Jerome Writing from Academia.edu

How we recovered stolen Caravaggio after setting trap for robbers – Ugo Mifsud Bonnici from Independent.com

Lost and recovered: the drama of Caravaggio’s stolen masterpiece from the Malta Culture Guide

Rev. Dr. Marius Zerafa Spoke on “The Theft and Ransom of Caravaggio’s “St. Jerome Writing”, Co-Cathedral of St. John” at ARCA’s Sixth Annual Interdisciplinary Art Crime Conference from ARCA

Sacred art and the return of the Caravaggio from Independent.com

Saint Jerome Writing – By Caravaggio from St. John’s Co-Cathedral

The friar and the Caravaggio thieves from Catholic Herald

Wikipedia contributors. “Jerome.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 14 Dec. 2015. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.