On Tuesday afternoon, teachers and faculty at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Tamiami looked on as workers uncrated centuries-old paintings and other artifacts that had been shipped from Italy. The artworks will be displayed as part of an exhibition in the school's gallery titled "Faith, Beauty, and Devotion: Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque Paintings."
"We're really lucky," says Sylvie Daubar-San Juan, humanities department chair and director of the Olga M. & Carlos A. Saladrigas Art Gallery at Belen Jesuit. "It's something that's especially unique for South Florida."
The 30 artworks in the show, running from Thursday, September 14, through Saturday, December 16, range from the medieval period in Europe through the Renaissance and into the Baroque era. The oldest work, a painted cross by an unidentified master artist from the Italian region of Umbria, dates from around 1295. Some famous names in the exhibition include the Venetian Renaissance painter Tintoretto, Flemish Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens, and the circle of Caravaggio.
Although a few of the works come from more secular genres, such as portraiture, a good deal of the show is focused on religious artwork. Especially during the Medieval periods, "Artists weren't concerned with realism, they were concerned with spirituality," says Daubar-San Juan. "It was a way for people to understand the religion and visualize it."
The artworks are on loan from Federico Gandolfini Vannini, a fourth-generation art dealer from Florence, Italy, whose business Frascione Arte specializes in old masters. Vannini's two sons attend Belen Jesuit, and his wife, Daisy Diaz, is a South Florida native. Daubar-San Juan says he approached the school about possibly exhibiting old master paintings. They met the school's president, Father Guillermo "Willy" García-Tuñón, who agreed to the show.
Vannini and Daubar-San Juan agree that a show focused on classical European art is a rarity in South Florida. Although institutions like the Bass Museum of Art and the University of Miami's Lowe Art Museum have a few works from the era, contemporary art is generally king in South Florida.
According to Father García-Tuñón, Belen Jesuit Preparatory School was founded in 1854 in Havana by Queen Isabel II of Spain. The school boasts notable alumni, including NBCUniversal chairman Cesar Conde and Broadway actor Raul Esparza, but their most famous students were the ones that led to its expulsion from Cuba, Fidel and Raul Castro. The school re-established itself in Miami in 1961 after the revolutionary government nationalized all religious property and most clergy left to the United States. In 2003, the all-male school set up its art gallery, which hosts four annual exhibitions.
Only a few pieces were hung by art handlers during the uncrating event. Many were still in various states of unpackaging or resting on the floor on top of blankets, cardboard pallets, and other protective devices. Vannini, at one point, held up an Italian "desco da parto," or birth tray, still in its wrapping. One school staffer exclaimed, "It's like Christmas, open it!"