Art Historian’s Lecture Details Discovery of Missing Masterpiece

October 18, 2022

On a random afternoon in the winter of 2020, Thomas Ruggio, M.F.A., Director and Associate Professor of Visual Arts at Iona University, took his usual seat in the rear of the Church of the Holy Family in New Rochelle, NY.

After a few minutes of quiet meditation, Prof. Ruggio scanned the otherwise empty church and noticed something that had not drawn his attention before—a 17-century Baroque painting. An art historian and artist, Prof. Ruggio was intrigued.

“It’s a habit I have, walking into churches during off hours,” Prof. Ruggio said. “It is a spiritual experience for me. I had been to this particular church many times, but on this day, the light was a little brighter and I noticed this painting. It was technically and formally flawless.”

So began Prof. Ruggio’s quest to identify the painting, an effort he detailed in a lecture at St. John’s University’s Queens, NY, campus on September 29. After months of research, Prof. Ruggio and colleagues identified it as the lost masterpiece Holy Family with the Infant St. John, the third in a series of four works from elusive Florentine artist Cesare Dandini, who lived from 1596 to 1657. 

Prof. Ruggio is an expert in 16th- and 17th-century European art and has curated a number of exhibitions from the period. He was introduced by Teresa Delgado, Ph.D., Dean and Professor, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and a parishioner at Church of the Holy Family.

“It’s a beautiful piece of artistic expression that I looked at for 30 years. It took Professor Ruggio’s eye to see what others could not,” Dr. Delgado said. “How much do we ourselves disregard if we don’t see other perspectives in the room?”

Using independent research and help from fellow art historians, Prof. Ruggio was able to authenticate the masterpiece that most likely has been displayed in the church for 60 years. It is believed to have been purchased in Italy in the early 1960s by former pastor Monsignor Charles Fitzgerald.

“The quality of the painting got me to believe that I was on a quest. I knew I had to get home and pore over images to discover what it was,” Prof. Ruggio said. “Once we could connect it as one of the four Dandini paintings, it made attribution a lot easier.”

The authentication of the unsigned masterpiece became a global story in the world of art history and thrust Prof. Ruggio into a media spotlight he never anticipated. Since the rediscovery, he has done interviews with leading news outlets drawn to the mystery behind the find.

“I knew I was doing important work,” Prof. Ruggio said. “I didn’t know how interested others would be, but interested they were.”

Holy Family with the Infant St. John depicts the Virgin Mary, her husband Joseph, and the Christ child meeting a young St. John the Baptist, described as a cousin of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. The painting was not part of Prof. Ruggio’s presentation but is available to be seen at the church. “They are very accommodating of people who want to see it,” he explained.

Members of the St. John’s University community had their own questions of Prof. Ruggio, who lives in Whitestone, Queens. One asked how the pastor of a small parish in New Rochelle had the financial means to purchase a masterpiece.

“If there wasn’t outright attribution to Mr. Dandini, it would not have been a tremendously expensive purchase,” Prof. Ruggio explained. “Plus, the market for masterpieces didn’t really take off until the 2000s.”

Another asked Prof. Ruggio if he expected more missing masterpieces might be rediscovered soon. “In a word, yes,” he said. “Seventeenth-century paintings are prime candidates for undiscovered works. I do expect more to be discovered.”