ROBERT MANNING’S LIFE SEEMS to have been marked by several moments of unusual serendipity. One such moment was certainly the day in 1947 when the then 23-year-old native of Mart, a maintenance depot on the now defunct Missouri Pacific rail line between Houston and Fort Worth, arrived in New York City with the proverbial $50 in his pocket, a room at the YMCA, and a letter of acceptance from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, the nation’s most prestigious graduate program in art history. Two hours off the train, queued up to enroll in classes, the famously reserved Manning was so taken with the attractive young woman standing ahead of him in line that he introduced himself. The woman was Bertina Suida, the daughter of a distinguished Austrian art historian, and the result of that chance encounter was a 42-year marriage and a remarkable professional partnership that produced what may be the last great private collection of old master paintings and drawings assembled in this country.

Almost half a century after that meeting, the legacy of what is now known as the Suida-Manning Collection was ensured by an equally unlikely encounter. In 1994, two years after his wife had passed away and two years before his own death, Manning visited a cousin in Austin and casually dropped in at the Archer M. Huntington Gallery (recently renamed the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art), the little museum crammed into the University of Texas art building and two floors of the Harry Ransom Center. Manning asked a guard if he could speak with museum director Jessie Otto Hite, who had to admit to the visitor that she had never heard of him. But Hite invited Manning to stay for coffee with someone who did know him quite well, if only by reputation: The museum’s curator of prints and drawings, Jonathan Bober, had visited Manning’s art-stuffed house in Forest Hills, New York, for a Harvard graduate seminar two decades earlier. Manning hinted that he was looking for a permanent home for his collection, but Bober couldn’t allow himself to even imagine the trove of almost 250 paintings and about four hundred drawings coming to a small university museum of limited means. “I was struggling to find support to buy prints costing in the tens of thousands,” Bober recalls. “It seemed utterly implausible.”

Yet in a coup more nearly miraculous than merely serendipitous, Hite and Bober won for the diminutive Blanton museum a prize coveted by art world Goliaths like Sotheby’s auction house and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Abetted by UT regent Lowell Lebermann and president Larry Faulkner, several anonymous donors who put up the seed money, and Robert and Bertina’s daughter and son-in-law, Alessandra Manning Dolnier and Kurt Dolnier, who donated a large portion of the collection (UT is raising money to pay for the rest), the deal was closed last November. Now almost sixty of the best paintings (six of them yanked from the walls of the chagrined Met, where they had been on long-term loan) have been put on display at the Ransom Center. They’ll stay there until 2002, when the Blanton is expected to move into a new home designed by the ultra-hot Swiss architects Herzog et de Meuron, another happy coincidence that will boost the Blanton into the first rank of American university museums and give UT a legitimate reason to brag about its cultural eminence.

In benefiting from all this good fortune, UT and the Blanton have also done good, sparing an irreplaceable cultural artifact from suitors who had eyed the collection with all the subtlety of investment bankers hoping to carve up a conglomerate. The objects of universal desire were the celebrity pieces—paintings by Rubens, Veronese, Poussin, Lorrain, Tiepolo, and Guercino—certain to fetch millions and enrich any museum’s cache of art-historical highlights; the auction tally would have been fattened by numerous masterpieces by lesser-known but equally adept masters such as Daniele Crespi, Sebastiano Ricci, and Luca Cambiaso. But this collection, as Jonathan Bober likes to point out, is worth considerably more than the sum of its parts. It represents almost a century of study, sleuthing, and shrewd shopping by two generations of scholars whose day jobs involved acquiring art for noted private collectors like Samuel H. Kress and Walter Chrysler, Jr. The condition and quality of the paintings will come as a revelation to museumgoers too often served up mediocre old masters that just look old. Yet as gorgeous as the works are, the Suida-Manning is more than a collectors’ collection. It is an opportunity to see one of the most fecund and fevered eras in the history of Western art through the eyes of three of its most discriminating and insightful students—a journey of discovery akin to actually entering King Tut’s tomb with Howard Carter rather than strolling past the royal sarcophagus in a glass case.

The earliest work in the Suida-Manning Collection dates back more than six hundred years; between Simone dei Crocifissi’s pristine little fourteenth-century tempera-and-gold altarpiece, with its attenuated medieval figures, and the questioning secular gaze of Sebastiano del Piombo’s High Renaissance Portrait of a Man (circa 1516) lies the familiar story of Western culture’s great humanistic reawakening. But the story the Suida-Manning tells in much more precise detail is a teeming chronicle of what came after that revival: the Age of the Baroque, which began at the end of the sixteenth century and ended in the middle of the eighteenth, bringing Europe (and later the Americas) from the Renaissance to the threshold of modernity and leaving in its wake so many of Europe’s premier tourist attractions, from St. Paul’s in London to Versailles to St. Peter’s in Rome. Bracketed by the Counter-Reformation and the Enlightenment, Baroque culture was a seething cauldron of ideas both medieval and modern, cooking up an art so turbulent, so boiling with conflict between the sacred and the profane, that historians looking back from the narrow perspective of the nineteenth century regarded it as perverse.

William Suida, who acquired perhaps a third of the works in the Suida-Manning Collection, was born near Vienna in 1877 and came to maturity just as art historians were beginning to give the Baroque a considerably more respectful reappraisal. A prolific author whose works ranged from scholarly monographs to a popular tourist guide to Genoa, Suida fled the Nazis in 1939 and eventually settled in New York, where he began advising Samuel Kress, the dime-store magnate, who acquired hundreds of old master paintings and gave them away to museums from Honolulu to Atlanta. Suida’s final opus, co-authored with his daughter in 1959, a year before his death, was a book on Luca Cambiaso; the Genoese master is so lavishly represented in the Suida-Manning Collection (seven paintings and 45 drawings) that it’s possible to reconstruct almost step by arduous step the artist’s progress through his turbulent times. An early drawing of a Zeus-like St. Luke—the evangelist on steroids—done while Cambiaso was studying in Rome, shows him struggling to assimilate Michelangelo’s muscular, awe-inspiring High Renaissance style. Cambiaso’s intimate, candlelit Madonna and Child With Saint Catherine and an Angel (1570), painted seven years after the closing of the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent, illustrates the kind of naturalistic, conventional piety the church mandated in hopes of winning back its straying congregants. But within a few years Cambiaso had joined the cult of Mannerism, striving for an artificial stylishness that delighted in the kind of bizarre, contorted pose found in his Lucretia (1575). Portraying the moment when ancient Rome’s most legendarily virtuous matron set a new standard for chastity by plunging a knife into her own breast after being raped by the son of Rome’s king (a gesture, the story goes, so noble that it brought down the Roman monarchy), Cambiaso largely forgets the moral instruction and invites his audience to admire the skill with which he plays games with human anatomy.

Cambiaso set the stage for a whole school of Baroque painting in Genoa, one of several Italian art centers that sent ideas pinging back and forth across the Apennines and Alps for the next 150 years. The most important locus was Rome, where the prospect of papal patronage drew major talent from throughout Italy and Europe: Rubens from Flanders; the Carraccis, Guido Reni, and Guercino from Bologna; Simon Vouet, Claude Lorrain, and Nicolas Poussin from France. The Suida-Manning Collection offers sparkling examples of all their work. By the time Guercino (which means “Squinter”; his real name was Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) arrived in Rome, in 1621, he had already mastered the full-blown Baroque formula seen in what many regard as the collection’s signature masterpiece, Landscape With Tobias and the Angel (circa 1616—17). Almost alive in its fresh, brisk brushwork, more concerned with nature than the supernatural, Guercino’s little landscape vibrates with the sensuality that became the hallmark of the Baroque aesthetic. And the story of its acquisition, during the 1968 edition of the Suida-Mannings’ perennial summer tours of European antiquaries and museums, illustrates how a keen eye—and a bit of luck—enabled two scholars of modest means to amass a collection that would tax a billionaire’s resources today: While giving his young daughter, Alessandra, a respite from Vienna’s galleries with a trip to a local toy store, Robert spotted the painting in the window of the antiques shop next door; unattributed, it was offered for little more than the value of its antique gilt frame. Robert and Bertina were renowned for an uncanny, often unspoken agreement on their acquisitions, but on this occasion they had a minor difference of opinion. Robert wanted to come back later, Alessandra remembers, but her mother insisted they snap up the painting on the spot.

From its Italian genesis the Baroque exploded across Europe, fracturing into competing schools of thought as it expressed the spirit of a complicated age. Poussin’s Arcadian Landscape (1627), a shepherd peacefully playing his pipes in an idealized Roman campagna, represents the conservative, classical point of view. By contrast, Claude Vignon, a French follower of the Italian realist Caravaggio, takes his David With the Head of Goliath (circa 1616—1622) into the streets; with his ragamuffin hairdo, fur-and-feather cap, and saucily bared shoulder, the biblical hero appears to have been modeled after a male prostitute. That conflict between the spirit and the flesh pervaded the age; paintings ostensibly intended to convey classical ideals or religious ecstasy often resulted in displays of skin as gratuitous as sex in a soap opera. Among concupiscent goddesses like Ricci’s peekaboo Flora (circa 1712—1716) and sumptuously attired, décolleté saints like Simon Vouet’s Saint Cecilia (circa 1627), a Saint Agatha (circa 1640’s) newly attributed to the Florentine Giovanni Martinelli bears special mention. When the Suida-Mannings acquired the age-darkened picture, they thought the busty, elegantly dressed (two strands of pearls) martyr was holding an enormous set of shears used to cut her hair. Cleaning the canvas revealed something else beneath a layer of overpainting: two centerfold-perfect, amputated breasts on a silver salver, presented along with the shears as symbols of Agatha’s particularly cruel, gruesome martyrdom.

For all the sizzle and sublimity of the current exhibition at the Ransom Center, the Suida-Manning Collection will have its greatest impact years and decades down the road, drawing scholars from all over the world to search this extraordinary archive for their own discoveries; already, Bober has authenticated an oil study by the preeminent Mannerist, Parmigianino, and a portrait by the Venetian High Renaissance master Tintoretto. When the drawings and paintings are exhibited together in the Blanton’s new home, the public and generations of UT students will be able to study an epoch in the history of art in a context sorely lacking in most museums: They will see, rather than a series of astonishing leaps from one genius to the next, a complicated dialogue that progresses in fits and starts between masters major and minor.

But for the moment, the arrival of the Suida-Manning Collection in Texas represents a remarkable homecoming for the son of a Missouri Pacific railroad engineer, who was fondly “regarded as the odd bird” (his daughter’s phrase) in a family of five boys and an invalid sister, and is still remembered in Mart for studiously copying old master paintings and exuberantly decorating all the local wedding cakes. Because Robert Manning never surrendered that youthful passion—and got a few lucky breaks along the way—this gifted but modest man has now immeasurably enriched the culture of his native state.