A lost painting by Caravaggio which art lovers have long hoped might still be found was burnt and destroyed by the Mafia, according to a former hitman turned pentito (informer).
The painting, Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence, was stolen from the oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo in 1969. Its whereabouts since then have remained a mystery despite investigations not only by police but also by scholars and art lovers.
Gaspare Spatuzzo, who was imprisoned in 1997 on multiple counts of murder and turned informer last year, has told magistrates that Filippo Graviano, a Mafia boss for whom he was a hitman, told him in 1999 in prison that the painting was destroyed in the 1980s.
He said that Graviano, who with his brother Giuseppe Graviano ran one of the most powerful Cosa Nostra clans, had told him that the painting, said to be worth at least £20 million, was handed for safe keeping to the Pullara family, part of the Santa Maria di Gesu clan in Palermo, who hid it in a farm outbuilding. "There it was eaten by rats and pigs, and so was burnt," Spatuzza said.
Francesco Marino Mannoia, a convicted heroin dealer whose mother, sister and aunt were murdered by the Mafia after he turned state's evidence, admitted taking part in the theft of the painting on a stormy night in October 1969. He said it had been damaged when it was ripped from the frame but had never revealed its location to police despite appeals from art foundations.
The Nativity, one of Caravaggio's last works, was painted in 1609, a year before his death. Among the many theories about its fate are that it was taken to Naples and was destroyed in the 1980 earthquake or that it ended up in the hands of an Italian collector in South Africa.
The motive for the theft has never been clear, although police believe that as the painting could not be sold on the open market it was stolen for a private collector to raise cash. Mannoia, testifying in 1996 at the trial of Giulio Andreotti, the former prime minister, on charges of links to the Mafia, claimed there had been a private buyer who wept at the sight of the damaged painting.
Last Friday Spatuzza told a court in Turin that Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, had links to the Mafia dating at least to the early 1990s, and had struck a deal with Cosa Nostra bosses which they boasted had "put the country in our hands".
Giving evidence at an appeal by Senator Marcello Dell'Utri, a close associate of Mr Berlusconi, against a nine-year sentence for Mafia association, Spatuzza said Giuseppe Graviano had told him Forza Italia, the party created by Mr Berlusconi and Mr Dell'Utri as a vehicle for Mr Berlusconi to enter politics in 1994, was backed by the Mafia.
He claimed Mr Berlusconi and Mr Dell'Utri had links to Cosa Nostra during a Mafia bombing campaign in Rome, Milan and Florence in 1993. Mr Berlusconi has claimed that the Mafia is slandering him because of his anti-crime policies, and has vowed to introduce new laws restricting the use of evidence by pentiti in court.
"If there is a person who by nature, sensitivity, mentality, background, culture and political comittment is as far from the Mafia as it is poosible to be, that person is me," Mr Berlusconi said.
His supporters point out that since he took office last year police have captured 17 of Italy's top 30 most-wanted suspected criminals. The day after Spatuzza's claim, police captured Giovanni Nichi, the Sicilian Mafia's suspected second-in-command, at his hideout in Palermo after three years on the run, and another suspected Sicilian mafia boss, Gaetano Fidanzati, was arrested in Milan.
Italian reports said Mr Berlusconi was applauded by the audience at a Milan cinema on Tuesday night when instead of attending a performance of Carmen at the gala opening of the La Scala opera season, he went with his daughter Eleonora to see Roland Emmerich's film 2012, which predicts a global catastrophe in two years' time.
Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by Mr Berlusconi's brother Paolo, said the applause backed up a poll showing that 69 per cent of Italians considered the charges of links to the Mafia to be "absurd".
It said he was devoting himself to his family rather than worrying that corruption trials and sex scandals would bring him down, as his critics claim. Mr Berlusconi joked afterwards that the "end of the world" as shown in 2012 was the only thing that would prevent him completing his five-year term.
In the film a fictional Italian prime minister is seen praying in St Peter's Square with the Pope as the dome of St Peter's Basilica crashes to the ground during earthquakes and tsunamis.
La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera quoted Mr Emmerich as saying the Italian premier in the film, played by Leonard Tenisci, was not based on Mr Berlusconi, who in the event of disaster "would be the first to flee".