Rival Italian Churches Battle over Caravaggio Masterpiece That Attracts 3,000 Visitors a Day

Good to know Caravaggio still inspires controversy.

The tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet,” hasn’t stopped two churches in the Sicilian port of Syracuse from engaging in a fierce ownership battle over a Caravaggio masterpiece, the Independent reports. (See Sotheby’s Wins Case Over $15.8 Million Caravaggio).

The baroque artist’s masterpiece The Burial of Saint Lucy (1608) was originally exhibited in the Basilica of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro in the Borgata district. When the church underwent extensive restoration the work was transferred to the Santa Lucia alla Badia church on the island of Ortigia.

The painting originally belonged to the Basilica Santa Lucia al Sepolcro. Photo: Siracusa Turismo

The painting originally belonged to the Basilica Santa Lucia al Sepolcro.
Photo: Siracusa Turismo

Since being transferred the artwork has become a tourist magnet. Its estimated that the Caravaggio attracts over 3,000 visitors a day to the Santa Lucia all Badia church, which has led to the revitalization of the entire district. (See Canaletto, Caravaggio Fail to Sell at Christie’s Worst Old Masters Sale Since 2002).

Now the Basilica of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro wants the painting back. And the dispute has pitted the two rival neighborhoods against each other.

Eyeing the surge in visitor numbers to the adjacent Ortigia district, Luigi Puzzo, president of the Association of the Faithful of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro, explained that the painting was removed from the church in 2010 when the structure had to undergo urgent restoration, and that the time has come for the painting to return “to its natural home.”

The painting now hangs in the Chiesa di Santa Lucia all Badia, who don't want to give it up Photo: Panoramio

The painting now hangs in the Chiesa di Santa Lucia all Badia
Photo: Panoramio

The former regional councillor for culture Maria Rita Sgarlata has started a petition, collecting over two thousand signatures calling for the painting to return to the Basilica. She also notes that the placement of the artwork obscures another painting in the church hanging nearby.

The National Directive of Italian Guides also waded into the debate. The organization insists that the artwork would be “isolated” in the Basilica, and supports Santa Lucia all Badia’s claim to the painting.

The final decision ultimately rests with the Regional Restoration Centre of Palermo. Tests conducted by art conservation experts in the Sicilian capital revealed that, though not ideal, the atmospheric conditions in the Santa Lucia alla Badia are better, and that the painting must remain there.

The work’s condition is already compromised following a botched restoration in 1979.

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