Experts Studying A Reconstruction Of Raphael’s Face Solved An Age-Old Mystery About His Identity

A group of experts from Italy are hard at work on a digital reconstruction of the great Renaissance artist Raphael. Thanks to contemporary technology, the team are able to work in a manner that would’ve been impossible in the past. And with these new techniques at their disposal, they’ve discovered something extraordinary about the revered painter.

This group was made up of members from several august institutions around Italy. Some were based at Rome’s Tor Vergata University, while others worked at the Accademia Raffaello and the Vigamus Foundation, both of which are based in the city of Urbino.

Regardless of their varying backgrounds, these people were unified in their fascination with the iconic figure of Raphael. And that’s hardly a surprise, given the high regard with which those in artistic circles hold him. Raphael’s works in the Vatican and his Madonnas are revered across the world, and that’s to say nothing of his self-portraits.

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Raphael’s paintings of himself have provided us with a sense of what he might have looked like in real life. But we now also have access to incredible technologies that can tell us even more about the man. And as the researchers from Italy found, sometimes a genius’ vision of himself isn’t to be trusted.

Raphael came into the world in Urbino in 1483. His parents were Magia di Battista Ciarla and Giovanni Santi, but the former passed away four years later. Raphael’s dad lived on for some time and brought up his child in an environment of creativity. Santi was himself an artist, though unlike his son it seems he never produced anything particularly special.

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Despite Santi’s apparent limitations as a creator, he was nonetheless embedded within a culture that celebrated art. And he raised Raphael accordingly. He was responsible for the child’s earliest painting lessons, and he also acquainted his son with the philosophical ideas of the time. But not long after Raphael had turned 11, tragically Santi passed away as well.

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In spite of having lost both his parents at such a young age, Raphael still managed to flourish in his hometown of Urbino. The city had become a hotbed of art, which inspired the budding painter. It’s said that he’d become incredibly skilled by the time he reached his mid-teens.

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Eventually, though, it was time for the young Raphael to move on. By 1495 the artist had shown up in Perugia, where he started to make a name for himself. A record made during the winter of 1500 shows that Raphael was already considered to be an exceptionally skilled artist by this point.

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From 1501 to 1503 Raphael was focused on an important task. He’d been selected to complete an artwork for the city of Perugia’s Church of San Francesco al Monte. This had initially been a job for the artist Perugino, who was a teacher of Raphael. Confident in his student’s ability, though, Perugino passed the assignment on to his student.

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Raphael’s earliest truly significant creation is said to have been strongly influenced by an earlier piece created by his teacher Perugino. This was Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin, which was completed in 1504. Though there are obvious differences between this and Perugino’s Giving of the Keys to St. Peter, the parallels are also notable.

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Not long after he’d finished work on The Marriage of the Virgin, Raphael moved on to a series of works based on stories from the Bible, classical mythology and other sources. These paintings were The Three Graces, St. Michael and Vision of a Knight. Around this time, Raphael’s style was developing beyond the boundaries of his teacher Perugino, so he went in search of a new tutor.

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Raphael ended up in Florence, attracted to the city largely because of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci’s activities there. Though the precise date of his arrival remains uncertain, it’s a sure bet that he was already in the city come the latter half of 1504. His art bears the hallmarks of new ideas from this point on.

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In Florence, Raphael was undeniably inspired by his mentors Michelangelo and da Vinci. It was the latter artist who perhaps left the strongest impression. This is seen clearly in Raphael’s string of Madonna paintings from this period. Examples of such works are the Esterházy Madonna, the Madonna del Prato and the Madonna of the Goldfinch.

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And Michelangelo’s influence on Raphael can be seen in the latter’s Deposition of Christ from 1507. Here, the younger artist appears to take inspiration from Michelangelo’s focus on the physiques of human beings. But Raphael’s work does still deviate from that of both Michelangelo and da Vinci. His pieces seem to be more serene, for example.

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As the year 1508 came to a close, Raphael was summoned to Rome by the pope of the time. Although Raphael wasn’t particularly famous at this point, he quickly gained the admiration of Pope Julius II. From then on, his reputation as an artist blossomed.

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Raphael’s general popularity is said to have been aided by more than simply his genius. He was apparently a good-looking individual, and he had the charisma to back it up, too. All of these elements contributed to the artist’s fine reputation, even leading to him becoming known as the “prince of painters.”

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For more than a decade Raphael resided and worked in Rome, creating artworks and ultimately a legacy that endures to this day. He designed frescoes inside various chambers in the Vatican, all of which are collectively referred to as the Stanze. While much of this work was undertaken personally by Raphael himself, some of the rooms were painted by attendants who followed his instructions.

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Raphael also returned to depicting Madonnas during his time in Rome. But these pieces had a different style to the Madonnas he’d created in Florence. In 1508 he completed the Alba Madonna before turning to the Madonna di Foligno. In the ensuing years, he finished work on the Sistine Madonna.

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And in addition to his Vatican frescoes and his Madonnas, Raphael also developed his skills as a portrait artist. He brought new ideas to the form, for example with the positioning of his subjects in the Portrait of Leo X with Two Cardinals. The greatest example of his abilities in this field is considered by many to be 1516’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione.

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In addition to these pieces, Raphael produced self-portraits as well. He painted himself in a work completed in 1506, for instance, and later created a painting that depicted him standing with a companion. In addition to being masterpieces in their own rights, these works have given later generations a sense of how the artist himself looked.

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Raphael’s final piece was The Transfiguration, which he worked on right until his passing in 1520. This was a complicated venture that was still incomplete at the time of the artist’s death. It was then down to a deputy named Giulio Romano to finish the painting.

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Raphael’s life came to an early end in April 1520. Strangely enough, this had been the same day that the artist turned 37. The Vatican was the setting for his funeral, where his Transfiguration work was also displayed. His remains are then believed to have been laid to rest in Rome’s Pantheon.

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The reasons behind Raphael’s untimely demise have been debated for centuries. For a long time, it was widely believed that the artist had died as a result of contracting syphilis. But research published in 2020 has suggested that he’d perhaps had a problem with his lungs. His physicians, then, fatally mistreated his ailment.

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If nothing else, the recent publication of this study illustrates just how important a figure Raphael has remained after all these centuries. It seems that there are still plenty of people interested in learning about the man himself. And that takes us to the group of Italian researchers who recently discovered something very surprising about the Renaissance man.

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To appreciate the significance of the researchers’ discovery, we have to cast our mind to 1833. That year, human remains were exhumed at Rome’s Pantheon. Among them, supposedly, was the skull of Raphael. But ever since there have been those who’ve doubted whether this was true.

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Mattia Falconi, a member of the research team who’s an expert in molecular biology, has summed up this debate. In a statement seen by CNN, he commented, “A recurring doubt about the identity of the remains has tormented the numerous admirers of the ‘divine painter,’ defined by Giorgio Vasari as ‘a mortal god,’ for centuries.”

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But this work by the Italian researchers seems to prove that the skull retrieved from the Pantheon was indeed Raphael’s. Before the skull was returned to the earth, a cast was made of it. And this item played a pivotal part in the recent study, which used it as the basis of a 3-D reconstruction.

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This digital rendering of the skull depicted a face similar to that of Raphael as he appears in his self-portraits. Speaking to Agence France-Presse, Falconi explained how we can be so sure that this reconstruction depicts Raphael. “It looks nothing like the [other people] we know are buried [at the Pantheon],” he said. “And it would be too much of a coincidence for a stranger to look so similar.”

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Olga Rickards is a specialist in molecular anthropology at the University of Tor Vergata. And she’s also released a statement about the team’s work. She said, “This research provides for the first time evidence that the skeleton exhumed in the Pantheon in 1833 belongs to Raphael.”

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Rickards went on to suggest that the research “paves the way for possible future molecular studies on the skeletal remains.” Such work would hopefully allow experts to learn more about Raphael’s DNA. This, in turn, might reveal aspects of the man such as the color of his hair and eyes.

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Falconi explained what else he and his colleagues had discovered as well. “We also found on the cast the complete dentition and it’s amazing how perfectly intact the teeth are,” he said. “This was rare for a 37-year-old man of the 16th century. It means that Raphael took great care of himself, including hygiene and nutrition.”

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The digital rendering of Raphael’s face was a remarkable achievement in its own right – and it also revealed something very surprising. While many of the features in the reconstruction matched up with the likenesses depicted by the artist in his self-portraits, there was one thing that deviated hugely. The painter’s nose is much smaller in his paintings.

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“The nose that emerged from our reconstruction of the face is certainly more prominent than what appears in Raphael’s self-portraits,” Falconi explained. “We therefore think that it is true that Raphael embellished himself, refined himself in his portraits.”

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Of course, Raphael was an artist who was able to pinpoint and express the beauty of his subjects. It’s possible that he’d simply been taking some artistic license in depicting himself with a finer nose than the one he actually possessed. So maybe it was a creative decision, rather than one borne of vanity.

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Speaking to CNN, Falconi elaborated on the idea that Raphael served the grace of his subjects. “In his pictorial vision, in his paintings, Raphael represented the beauty of people,” Falconi said. “Suffice it to see as an example the portrait of Pope Leo X, who certainly was not physically graceful. Raphael manages to extract beauty.”

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Despite all this, it’s possible that Raphael hadn’t meant to alter his nose at all. Perhaps the deviation between the digital rendering and his self-portraits was simply a consequence of growing older. After all, the 3-D reconstruction was based on how the artist appeared near the end of his life.

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Plans are reportedly in place to retrieve Raphael’s remains from the ground once again. But this proposal has already been delayed in recent times, and whether it will be put into action remains uncertain. But if it does proceed, then perhaps experts will soon be able to learn more about the artist’s anatomy.

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As for the work undertaken by the Italian researchers, the scientific journal Nature is set to lay out their findings. And their digital rendering of Raphael’s face will have a more tangible use, too. Apparently, a mould has been made that will be exhibited in a museum in Urbino.

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All of this interest is illustrative of the enormous impact that Raphael had on the art world during his short life. There’s still a huge amount of interest surrounding the artist, and his works continue to be revered. Many of these can still be found in the Vatican today, where they attract countless admirers from all over the world.

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Generally speaking, Raphael isn’t considered to have been quite as important as his mentors da Vinci and Michelangelo. But he’s recognized as a hugely influential artist who encapsulated the essence of the Renaissance. And he rightly remains a source of great fascination today.

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