In kindergarten, Federico Castelluccio was so wicked good with crayons that a teacher who was impressed with his artistry decided to bring him a set of watercolors. She watched over his shoulder as he painted still lifes — a wine decanter, grapes draped across a table’s edge — from memory. Then she took the paintings home, to keep for herself.
Smart teacher. Those watercolors, created in a New Jersey classroom more than 40 years ago, were a sign of things to come. Castelluccio went on to become successful as an actor, a painter and a pretty savvy art collector in his own right.
Five years ago, browsing through antique canvases at an auction gallery in Frankfurt, Germany, he was drawn to a large portrait of St. Sebastian.
Although the painting was labelled as an anonymous 18th-century work, Castelluccio’s instincts as a collector told him otherwise. And so — he is convinced of this — did his DNA. He was born in Turin, Italy, an ancient cultural center still suffused with the architecture, iconography and lingering spirits of centuries past.
For whatever reason, peering through the yellowing layers of lacquer generated in Castelluccio a jolt of familiarity that was akin to seeing a dear friend’s smiling face emerge from a crowd of strangers. He feigned casual interest in the painting — the training as an actor comes in handy sometimes — then won it at auction for roughly $160,000.
It’s worth $10 million.
Experts confirmed what Castelluccio had intuited: The painting was the work of Giovanni Barbieri, a 17th-century Italian Baroque master with a lazy eye who was nicknamed “Il Guercino” (the squinter).
The collecting coup generated quite a bit of publicity because Castelluccio, whose lucky stars and paisano pedigree apparently also impact his acting career, already had a measure of pop culture stature, having landed a coveted recurring role in The Sopranos as Furio Giunta, an old-school, rank-and-file Italian mobster.
Sample headline: Sopranos Star Makes a Killing.
I met Castelluccio a few weeks ago, when he flew to Orlando from his home in New Jersey to see a guy in a basement about some paintings. It’s actually a pretty nice basement. And in a few months, you’ll have a chance to see the paintings for yourself.
The visit was on behalf of Arthur Blumenthal, a Renaissance and Baroque art scholar who has spent much of the past five years sequestered in a tiny office in the basement of the Warren Administration Building on the campus of Rollins College.
Blumenthal is director emeritus of the college’s Cornell Fine Arts Museum. His basement office is the headquarters of his one-man crusade to stage the first-ever exhibition of the art of Francesco de Mura, an 18th-century, late-Baroque Italian artist who painted mainly in Naples — and, as it happens, in Turin.
The art scholar and the TV thug struck up an improbable friendship several years ago after Blumenthal delivered a lecture about de Mura at the Italian Cultural Institute of New York in Manhattan.
“Federico came up to me afterwards,“ recalls Blumenthal, “and he was asking me such specific, well-educated questions that eventually I said something like, ‘How do you know so much about de Mura?’ And he said, ‘Well, I own one of his paintings.’”
De Mura’s rightful place in art history was obscured after a third of his work was destroyed during World War II, when the U.S. bombed the abbey at Monte Cassino, a German stronghold.
“His genius was lost in time,” says Castelluccio, who met with potential donors in a posh private gathering at the Cornell to help raise money for his friend’s exhibition, which will open at the museum in September, then travel to three other U.S. venues.
The display will feature 49 paintings, including works on loan from the Louvre in Paris, the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York — and a private collector whose name you can probably guess.
Sometimes, when Blumenthal’s wife, Karen, marvels at the unlikely chain of events that brought the two men together and made the exhibition possible, she visualizes a painterly flight of chubby cherubs hovering overhead, directing traffic.
“I’m sure Federico and Arthur spent other lives together in the 17th and 18th century, as comrades wandering the cobblestone streets,” she says. “I feel they knew Caravaggio, Giordano, Solimena — the whole crew. And of course, the two of them must have promised de Mura that they would not let history forget him.”
Michael McLeod is a contributing writer for Winter Park Magazine and an adjunct instructor in the English department at Rollins College.