On Friday, September 26, Youville Place hosted a special exhibition of a painting dating back to the High Renaissance: Gianfrancesco Penni’sHoly Family with St. Catherine of Alexandria and the Young St. John the Baptist. Roger Howlett, Senior Research Fellow at Childs Gallery in Boston and the son of Youville resident Dorothy Howlett, is the current owner of this piece. He exhibited the painting for Youville residents and shared with them the remarkable story of how he came to acquire it.
The year was 1985, he explained to Youville residents in September. “Mr. Childs, the original owner and founder, had four unidentified paintings when I took over the gallery. One of them we called ‘the old Italian painting.”
Given the choice of purchasing the unidentified “old Italian painting,” or letting it go home with Mr. Childs, Mr. Howlett took a leap of faith and made an offer for it. It was a decision that he now describes as “dumb luck.”
Later attempts to track the painting’s identity were thwarted by the lack of information regarding the painting’s previous owners. “We still don’t even know how it came to Boston,” says Howlett. The verso bore the insignia of “Murray-Stewart,” a British family who had owned the painting until 1888. Except for a framer's label that indicated that the painting had been framed in Boston somewhere between 1902 and 1942, the ensuing gap of time, up until Mr. Childs’ acquisition of the work in 1955, was a mystery.
Roger Howlett and his mother Dorothy Howlett with the PenniThe ‘old Italian painting’ would remain an unknown variable for the next two decades; a mysterious image of the holy family assembled around various symbols of antiquity. In the center of the picture, the Virgin Mary lifts the infant Jesus from an overturned Roman sarcophagus that doubles as his cradle. Behind Mary, on the right side of the painting, Joseph leans pensively on a cracked plinth. In the background up on a hill, above the figure of St. Catherine of Alexandria, the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla mark another allusion to antiquity.
In 2004, Mr. Howlett gave a summer intern named Eliza Katz the challenge of determining the painting’s identity. Katz made a startling the discovery: she found that the three figures of the holy family derived from those in Raphael’s Holy Family of Francis I, a work now in the Louvre. Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus were strikingly similar in both paintings – their orientation to one another as well as their respective positions and gestures.
The exciting hypothesis emerged that Howlett’s painting may have come from the studio of Raphael. Katz contacted a leading expert on Raphael’s circle, Professor Paul Joannides of Cambridge University. From the provided images, Professor Joannides recognized the work of Gianfrancesco Penni, Raphael’s studio assistant. He informed Mr. Howlett that there was a nearly identical painting by Penni, dating from 1521-22, and hanging in the National Museum in Warsaw. What followed was a flurry of correspondence between Joannides and Howlett, in which Joannides estimated that both the Boston and Warsaw paintings were painted by Penni around the same time, with the possible influence of Giulio Romano, another prominent Raphael assistant.
Mr. Howlett’s painting is now confirmed as “The Boston Version” of Penni’s Holy Family. He has since lent the painting to exhibits in multiple European cities, including 2012 exhibitions in Late Raphael at the Prado in Madrid and the Louvre in Paris, and a 2013 exhibition in which the Warsaw and Boston versions met for the first time since their production, 500 years ago.
After 30 years of ownership, Mr. Howlett is beginning to consider putting the Penni up for sale. For Youville residents, the timing of his visit may have been perfect. It’s not every day that a painting from the High Renaissance shows up in your home.