VISIT the oratory of the Church of San Lorenzo in Palermo and you will see a blurry reproduction of Caravaggio’s 1609 Nativity With St Francis And St Lawrence. On the wall opposite is the empty wooden frame from which the original was cut in 1969, likely by Mafia thieves. Like many artworks in Italian churches, the original was unprotected: the thieves disappeared with a piece valued at £15 million.
The case is still unsolved. Rumours about the fate of the painting, many fuelled by Mafia pentiti (penitent crime figures who turn state witness), still abound. One said it was burned, another that it was stored at a farm and eaten by pigs and mice, and a third that it was so damaged in the removal it was cut into fragments and destroyed.
The Caravaggio theft prompted Italy’s military police, the Carabinieri, to establish its own ‘art police’, the division for the protection of cultural heritage. Between 20,000 and 30,000 art works are stolen in Italy each year, so they’re a very dedicated, earnest and hard-working bunch.
When I stayed in Palermo for a few months, I was captivated by the knowledge that the Mafia traffic not only in guns, drugs and people but also in art. What might it mean if an outsider was caught up in that trade, an innocent, perhaps, used as a stooge or a courier? My novel The Death Of Noah Glass uses this premise as a backdrop.
This is not a Mafia tale but one that uses research into 19th-century sculptor Vincenzo Ragusa, who taught in Tokyo before returning to Sicily with a Japanese wife, to set up a mystery about an Australian art historian seduced by Palermo and a local colleague. That historian is Noah Glass, who falls in love with a woman called Dora, whose family were destroyed in a famous May Day massacre of leftists by Mafia. Another character is affected by the Mattanza, a period in the early 1980s when more than a thousand people were killed in Mafia ‘wars’ and assassinations.
I wanted to connect current-day Palermo — a vibrant, arty city full of cultural riches and magnificent buildings of many eras — to this recent violent history and an honouring of the fight against Mafia crime. The Death Of Noah Glass centres on ideas of family, grief and the meaning of art. How do vision and violence connect? How do families operate when there are secrets between parents and children? In the novel, Noah’s children, Martin and Evie, are tasked with finding out what happened to their beloved father.
Behind all this imagining lies my own interest in Italian art, Piero and Caravaggio in particular. Caravaggio, the greatest Italian painter of the 17th century, was on the run after a murder when he spent 1608 in Sicily. He died in 1610 at the age of 39. How is this knowledge meaningful now? When we travel abroad and look at artworks, what parts of ourselves are we inspecting?
The Death Of Noah Glass by Gail Jones (Text Publishing) is out now