Mystery Portrait could be a Raphael, artificial intelligence suggests

At a meeting of high art and cutting-edge facial recognition, researchers said they used artificial intelligence to determine what was involved was a circular painting of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus known as the de Brécy tondo, or tondo for short, was likely made by the painted by Italian master Raphael.

However, many art historians insist that the tondo is the result of another painter copying one of Raphael’s most famous works Sistine Madonna. He painted the latter around 1513 for the Church of San Sisto in Piacenza, Italy. But since the 18th century, the Sistine Madonna hung mainly in castles and museums in Dresden, Germany.

The new analysis has not convinced everyone. Instead, it’s the latest round in a 40-year debate over the origins of the tondo, which art collector George Lester Winward bought in 1981 from an aristocratic family with ties to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of England’s King Charles I, before his death , Winward established a trust to preserve his art collection and make the pieces available for study. Before the new find, a study of the tondo pigments using Raman spectroscopy and X-rays, as well as historical research, had suggested that Raphael might have painted it. But many experts disputed the attribution.

For the latest look, the researchers used an artificial intelligence system called a deep neural network that had been trained for months to recognize faces. The program examined thousands of aspects of the faces in the tondo and in the Sistine Madonna, including their proportions, colors, textures, and shading — “all of this and more,” says Hassan Ugail, professor of visual computing at the University of Bradford in England, who conducted the analysis.

The Sistine Madonna, by Raphael, 1512-1513. This oil painting is in the Old Masters Picture Gallery of the Dresden State Art Collections in Germany. Photo credit: VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

According to AI, the faces of the Madonna in both paintings are 97 percent similar, while the faces of the child are 86 percent similar. These close matches show that both paintings were made by the same artist, says Ugail. “I’m not 100% sure,” he adds, “but the odds are very, very high.”

Many art historians are still unconvinced, and suggest the tondo’s exact similarity to that Sistine Madonna told. “It’s not a variation in an interesting way,” says Cammy Brothers, who researches Italian Renaissance and Mediterranean art and architecture at Northeastern University. “This is a later copy after Raphael rather than a painting by him or even one of his students,” she says.

Art historians Nigel Ip from London and Lisa Pon from the University of Southern California agree. IP objects that the AI ​​only examined for superficial similarities. “Artist attributions also have to take social and historical factors into account,” such as workshop practices or anachronisms in the use of materials, and AI can’t do that, he says.

In addition, the Renaissance was “a culture of copying,” says Pon. “Even during his lifetime, Raphael’s works were often copied.” And earlier spectroscopic analysis of the tondo, which found traces of pigments used in the 16th century, may indeed have uncovered a later copy that had used 16thth-Century pigments to look authentic, she says.

Timothy Benoy, honorary secretary of the trust that now owns the de Brécy Tondo, has heard such objections before. But he’s confident that Raphael created the tondo, maybe even before he started it Sistine Madonna. Both works, says Benoy, were painted on canvas, which Raphael was unfamiliar with at the time. Instead, the artist more often painted on the plaster of frescoes, or on paper or parchment — calfskin parchment. “Raphael would have had to practice painting on canvas, and the tondo would have been an opportunity,” says Benoy.

For the time being, the de Brécy Tondo is locked away. But the next stage in efforts to verify its authenticity will be to invite inspections by art experts, Benoy says.

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