Raffaello: discovery of a forgotten PEARL

Art-Test contributed, with multispectral image analyses (XR, IR, VIS, UV), macrophotos and XRF results, to the finding of a lost painting by Raphael.

A portrait of a woman that lay discarded for decades in the vault of a northern Italian palace is in fact the work of Renaissance great Raphael. The portrait was put in storage in the 1970s at the Ducal Palace in Sassuolo near Modena, once one of the strongholds of the Este dynasty, the dukes of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio Emilia who were among Raphael’s patrons. At the time, experts said it was probably a 17th-century copy of a painting from the Raphael School, nowadays known as the Madonna of the Pearl in the Prado Gallery in Madrid.

But Mario Scalini, arts superintendent for Modena and Reggio Emilia, noticed the painting during an inventory of the storage room: “I was first tipped off by the very fine quality of the work but what really got me on the right track was a close look at the frame, a superb 17th-century gallery frame. It would have been highly unusual to bestow such a prestigious frame on a work that was considered of little worth”.

After further investigations he found centuries-old inventory notations indicating the Este family collection contained a woman’s portrait by Raphael.

The 30cm-by-40cm work was sent to the Art-Test laboratory in Florence. which thanks to the exclusive Multilayer® stratigraphy analysis, managed to uncover what lay beneath layers of overpainting.

Testing revealed three different layers underneath, due to restoring interventions operated in the XVI and XIX centuries, including the preparatory design of the original artist.

Researcher Anna Pelagotti said “It was a beautiful sensation, our mouths dropped open”.

Top restorer Lisa Venerosi Pesciolini, said the subsequent touching up, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, had “softened” the original to “adapt it to contemporary palates. Underneath the layers, it was possible to get at the original design, which proved Scalini’s insight”.

Thanks to the collaboration of the head conservators of the Prado Museum, Carmen Garrido and Rafael Alonso, it was possible to compare the physical dimensions and the outlines of the famous Madonna portrait with the painting under examination: the two portraits are perfectly identical in dimension and outline. Experts now think the Modena one is actually the first version. The reason previous viewers have been unable to spot the likeness is that it was later altered to suit post-Renaissance tastes, but now thanks to the scanning equipment of Art-Test it was possible to discover the story behind this magnificent portrait.

The abandoned portrait by the Renaissance master, now valued at 35 milllion Euros, will be soon shown in an art exhibition in Siena. The details of the fascinating discovery and the supporting evidence provided by the analysis have been published in the book “La Perla di Modena: un Raffaello ritrovato“.