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At first glance the portrait hanging on the second floor of the Bass Museum of Art isn't particularly striking. The unsigned work measures 28 by 22 inches. It is a dark depiction of a jowly man with a sparse, drooping mustache and a steady gaze. A black skullcap sits atop his head; he has full lips, faint dark circles under his eyes, and a long, regal nose. Only his face and white collar are illuminated. His robe and cap all but blend into the dark tones of the background.
The canvas is surrounded by a heavy, gilded frame. A small, gold-color tag attached to the bottom reads in black letters: "El Padre Cristobal Suarez de Ribera."
The tag also gives the name of the artist: Velázquez. As in Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Spain's greatest Baroque painter.
According to a March 16 press release from the museum and Miami art collector Javier Lumbreras, the portrait is the master's own copy of another portrait of Suarez de Ribera that today hangs in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville, Spain. Lumbreras purchased it from a duke's estate in England two years ago, then loaned it to the museum.
From here things get murky. Although only about 130 Velázquez paintings exist after all, he died in 1660 at age 61 it's extraordinarily difficult to find a photo of the portrait that hangs in the Bass. It is not in any of the nine thick reference books on Velázquez at the main branch of the Miami-Dade Public Library. Nor is it shown on any of more than a dozen Websites about the painter's work.
There's a short mention of something that might refer to it in a two-volume Velázquez tome published in 1964, but it's too vague to verify. Three top experts on Spanish art, including two who have written books on Velázquez, said they hadn't heard of it when queried by the New Times.
"Velázquez himself did not paint replicas of his works with a few exceptions," comments Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt, a New York-based independent curator and art historian.
Lumbreras rolled a suitcase into the New Times's office filled with documents claiming the painting is genuine and had been owned by Spanish nobility since the Seventeenth Century. He also included a February 2004 art journal article on the painting, written by Carmen Garrido, an expert at the Prado Museum in Madrid. "We think the painting should be considered a replica by the hand of Velázquez," Garrido wrote.
Lumbreras first looked at the painting three years ago in a storage warehouse in London. "When I saw it for the first time, I thought it was a painting worth pursuing," said the 42-year-old Miami Beach resident. "I was confronted with something really unique and exclusive."
So how did this painting alight in Miami? The answer is a tale as historical as any on the History Channel, and as gripping as any chapter of The Da Vinci Code. But instead of cryptograms embedded in Old Masters' works, the journey of Suarez de Ribera's likeness is revealed in press releases and dusty art tomes, in spotty accounts of Velázquez's life written some 400 years ago, and in court records. It includes tales of dashing Spaniards and inquisition royalty; of conflict of interest; of hustle and hate.
Our story begins in Spain, around 1599, during the years that Florida was a Spanish colony and Miami an empty swamp. That's when Velázquez was born into a family of modest means in Seville. The city had a legacy of artistic talent, and at the tender age of twelve, the young painter signed a contract for a six-year apprenticeship with the studio of Francisco Pacheco, a local painter and prominent socialite. Pacheco not only introduced Velázquez to the city's elite; he also brought works from Italy into the studio for the young painter to study.
Pacheco was obviously fond of his apprentice. Velazquez married Pacheco's daughter, Juana, in 1617, and the couple had two children within four years of the wedding.
Velázquez was about twenty years old when he painted a portrait of Priest Don Cristobal Suarez de Ribera. The priest was Pacheco's friend and a founding clergyman of a Jesuit brotherhood in the city. Experts believe the artist completed the full-body portrait after the priest died, sometime between 1618 and 1620. The likeness, which shows a fleshy Ribera kneeling in a black monk's robe near a window and a Jesuit insignia, was placed atop Ribera's tomb at the Church of San Hermenegildo.
The painting isn't considered to be one of Velázquez's greatest a scholar of his paintings once called the priest's portrait "limp." But, along with other natural-looking paintings of religious figures and still lifes, it caught the eye of the royal family in Madrid. In 1623 Velázquez was called to do a portrait of Spain's king, Philip IV. The painter's skill and the death of the official royal artist led the king to appoint the 24-year-old to court painter.