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A rare treat: a painting by Renaissance master Titian is on display at a high school

The work attributed to Titian hangs between two other paintings of Saint Sebastian in the gallery of Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Miami.
Armando Colls
The work attributed to Titian hangs between two other paintings of Saint Sebastian in the gallery of Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Miami.

MIAMI — Among art enthusiasts, the Italian Renaissance painter Titian holds a special status.

An immensely successful 16th century artist, he introduced new methods of using color which influenced later painters. Titian had a long career and hundreds of his paintings survive. Still, the discovery of a new Titian is an event. A work recently determined to be painted by him ispart of an exhibition in Miami.

It's not at a museum but at a high school, one that has its own history. Belen Jesuit Preparatory School was founded in Havana in the nineteenth century. It moved to Miami in 1961 after the Cuban revolution. The private boys-only school has a commitment to arts education and has its own gallery.

But art history teacher Sylvie Daubar-San Juan says the school never before had an exhibition as prestigious as this—one that encompasses three artistic eras—the medieval, the Renaissance and the baroque.

"We're super lucky," she says. "Particularly you know, the caliber of a lot of the artists and the fact that it shows these three different styles."

Art historian Paul Joannides believes the repositioning of Saint Sebastian's head and the painting of the loincloth could only have been done by Titian.
/ Frascione Arte
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Frascione Arte
Art historian Paul Joannides believes the repositioning of Saint Sebastian's head and the painting of the loincloth could only have been done by Titian.

Miami has become an international art destination, thanks to the annual Art Basel fair and some important private museums that focus on contemporary art. But the exhibition at Belen is something Miami has rarely seen before—"old masters"—European paintings, including works by Rubens, Tintoretto and the one newly attributed to Titian.

They're all from the collection of Federico Gandolfi Vannini, a fourth-generation art dealer from Florence, now living in Miami. "My great-grandfather was...one of the first art dealers in Italy," he says.

Vannini came to Miami with his American wife and four kids during the pandemic and decided to stay. His sons enrolled at the private high school. A conversation with the school's president led to this exhibition.

There are 30 pieces in the show including one from the 13th century. It is, Vannini says, "one of the oldest pieces of modern art that has ever come to South Florida." It's a wooden cross, with a painting of Jesus and a quartet of saints, the work of an unknown artist from Italy's Umbrian-Marches region.

Three paintings of Saint Sebastian, clad only in a loin cloth and pierced by arrows, are the centerpiece of the exhibition. Until Vannini had it restored, one was attributed only to an unknown artist. But when an old coat of varnish that obscured the image was removed, a high-quality painting emerged and there were clues that it could have been done by Titian.

Standing in front of the six-foot-tall canvas, Vannini points out what art historians call "pentimenti," corrections made by the artist that are visible on close inspection. He says, "I saw for example that the face of Saint Sebastian was...higher, that it was looking up."

X-ray images confirm that the artist experimented with the saint looking up, before repainting the head to face downward. On the lower left section of the painting, Vannini points out another area where a correction was made. "You can see," he says, "the painting was all moved a little bit on this side."

Another clue is a fragment of canvas used as a patch on the painting that carries the letters "A-N"—perhaps part of the artist's signature.

Details in an x-ray image of the painting shows that Saint Sebastian's head appears to have originally looked upward.
/ Frascione Arte
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Frascione Arte
Details in an x-ray image of the painting shows that Saint Sebastian's head appears to have originally looked upward.

The image of Saint Sebastian depicted in the painting is well-known. It appears in a large altarpiece signed by the artist that is now in the Vatican museum. Vannini suspects that his painting was possibly a study for that larger work.

Vannini sent it to London where it could be evaluated by one of the foremost Titian scholars. Paul Joannides, professor emeritus at Cambridge University told NPR that this painting is at least partially, the work of Titian.

In his evaluation, Joannides says he believes the repositioning of Saint Sebastian's head, as revealed by X-rays, could only have been done by Titian himself. In an essay, he says he also became convinced by the quality of the painting. "To my eye," he writes, "the loin cloth, which is vigorously and securely executed is likely to be by Titian's own hand." Other parts of the painting, notably the saint's body and legs, Joannides writes, could have been done by other artists in Titian's workshop.

Maria H. Loh is a professor of art history at the Institute for Advanced Study who has written two books on Titian. She declined to comment on the authenticity of the painting. She says because Titian had a large workshop that produced many versions of the artist's work, attributing paintings to him can be tricky. "It is sometimes difficult to know whether it is an authentic painting painted by the hand of the master or if it is a painting that has been replicated and duplicated and is coming out of the workshop."

Vannini says that's why the artist's visible corrections to the painting are so important. "It means that it's not a copy of the one of the Vatican," he says. If it was identical to the well-known figure in the altarpiece now in the Vatican museum, Vannini says, "it could be just a copy done by his workshop, some of his followers, that just, someone was paying to have a copy."

Attributing art to old masters like Titian can be a fraught and contentious process, in part because it can inflate overnight the value of painting from the thousands well into the millions.

Vannini says he has no plans to sell the painting. His family has had it for 60 years, though he says he would one day like to see it go to a museum. The exhibition will be up through mid-December. Vannini hopes other Titian scholars will take a look and form their own opinions on its authenticity.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.