Iona professor finds missing 17th century masterpiece in New Rochelle church


Photo Courtesy of Thomas Ruggio

The painting by Cesare Dandini is currently on display at the Ryan Library.

Emily Varker, Copy Editor

For many years, a Baroque masterpiece lay hidden in plain sight at the Church of the Holy Family in New Rochelle, NY, just a few blocks away from Iona College. Now, Cesare Dandini’s “Holy Family with the Infant St. John” has been identified and returned to its true status as a great work of art.  

The painting was rediscovered by Thomas Ruggio, a professor of visual arts at Iona College. While sitting in the church one day, the painting caught his eye. From there, the mission to verify the painting’s true identity and legitimacy began. Experts from the Met to across the Atlantic in Italy aided in this undertaking. 

When asked about the rediscovery of the painting and the process of proving its legitimacy, Ruggio expressed disbelief. 

As soon as I laid my eyes on it, I knew I was looking at a 17th century Italian painting of the highest quality,” Ruggio said. “I couldn’t believe that it was hanging in a church in New Rochelle. After conferring with other scholars in Italy, Dr. Paola Betti and Dr. Massimo Bonino, as well the Curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the artist of this mystery painting was identified.” 

Although there is mystery surrounding its journey from its birthplace in Italy to its current home in New Rochelle, the painting strongly represents Cesare Dandini’s own creative journey toward this magnum opus. Signs at the exhibit in the Ryan Library as well as the exhibition catalogue tell the story of Dandini’s growth from his artistic influences, including the celebrated German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer, to several intermediary paintings and finally to the masterpiece now hanging in the Ryan Library.  

Viewers can see the evolution from multiple paintings where Dandini experimented with figures who would eventually shape the individuals seen in the final masterwork. Mary develops from the nebulous being of Charity to the mother of the Messiah. St. Joseph goes from standing in the background to embodying a dynamic character, both restraining St. John from coming too close to the infant Jesus and alluding to the prophet role John would later accept.  

These constant figures would actually be key to identifying the painting. As Prof. Ruggio stated, “The “Holy Family with the Infant St. John” is a painting that is connected to at least three other paintings, one in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, another in the collection of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and another Dandini painting that was part of a private New York collection.  This not only made for an easier attribution, but because Dandini reused some of the same figures in each painting, we also get a glimpse at his process. Of the four paintings though, the “Holy Family with the Infant St. John” is the masterpiece that Cesare Dandini was working towards.”  

Now out of the obscurity it had been subjected to for some time, the painting and the history leading to it can be appreciated in full. The painting is now on exhibition in the Ryan Library, placed in a position of importance so that those who walk into the library will be struck by it and be compelled to examine it closer. After being lost, it can again fulfill its purpose of inspiring and instigating wonder in those who see it.  

Reflecting on this accomplishment, Prof. Ruggio was proud to be a part of such a discovery. 

My research and the exhibition have left me with a feeling of great satisfaction because this important painting, considered lost for decades, is now back where it belongs within the body of work of the great Florentine Baroque painter, Cesare Dandini,” Ruggio said. “I hope the entire Iona community can get to the Ryan Library and visit this important exhibition.” 

The Holy Family with the Infant St. John will be on view in the Ryan Library until Dec. 17, 2021.