Sicilian Churches Clash Over Caravaggio

Two churches in the Baroque port town of Syracuse, Sicily are in a fractious dispute over the ownership of one of famed Renaissance painter Caravaggio’s masterpieces, The Burial of St Lucy.

Both churches are dedicated to St. Lucy, the patron saint of Syracuse and both lay claim to the oil painting, which was completed in 1608, just two years before Caravaggio’s death in Porto Ercole on the coast of Tuscany.

The painting has switched locations over the centuries, but in 2006 it was awarded to the Basilica of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro in the Borgata district of Siracusa, with the custodians promising to guard it with security systems similar to those used by the Louvre to protect the Mona Lisa. Yet the security precautions never materialized, so four years later it was transferred to the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia, in the rival parish of Ortigia, where it is admired by thousands of tourists each day. Now the custodians of the church in Borgata are launching a campaign to get the painting back, with a petition that has so far been signed by around 2,000 people. Critics say, however, that the church is simply not suitable for a valuable painting, in part because it is damp.

The return of the painting is being strenuously opposed by local tour guides, who say the Basilica of Borgata is not up to the job of looking after the painting. A tangle of different authorities, from the local diocese to the cultural heritage department of the region, is squabbling over the painting, with a final decision expected to be handed down next month.

Caravaggio, whose real name was Michelangelo Merisi, lived a turbulent life in which violent altercations forced him to flee from one city to another. After finding fame in Rome for his distinctive “chiaroscuro” painting technique, the contrast of shadow and light, he suddenly had to leave the city in 1606 after he was involved in a brawl in which he killed a man.

Caravaggio eventually wound up in Malta, the headquarters of the Knights of Malta, where he was made a member of the chivalric order. But by 1608, he was in prison, most probably after becoming involved in another fight in which he wounded a knight. He was expelled by the Knights on the grounds that he had become “a foul and rotten member” of the order and imprisoned in a castle dungeon. He was released under mysterious circumstances and fled first to Sicily and then Naples. He was heading to Rome in the hope of obtaining a Papal pardon for the murder he had committed when he died.

Caravaggio’s death at the age of 38 has been blamed variously on malaria, an intestinal infection, lead poisoning from the oil paints he used or a violent brawl. It has also been suggested that he was murdered on the orders of the Knights of Malta to avenge an attack on one of their members.

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