This Raphael masterpiece isn’t quite what it seems

Madonna of the Rose, Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio).

Madonna of the RoseMuseo Nacional del PradoCNN — 

A 500-year-old Raphael painting is partially the work of another artist, according to a new study.

A team led by scientists from England’s University of Bradford used artificial intelligence to determine that the face of Joseph in the “Madonna della Rosa” (“Madonna of the Rose”) was painted by someone other than the Renaissance master.

Raphael is one of the best known Renaissance masters and lived from 1483 to 1520. The Italian is best known for works such as “The School of Athens” and “Three Graces.”

Hassan Ugail, director of the Centre for Visual Computing and Intelligent Systems at the University of Bradford, told CNN Thursday that he’d developed an algorithm to recognize genuine Raphael paintings, with 98% accuracy.

It analyzes 4,000 parameters such as brush strokes, color palette and hue to determine whether a painting is a genuine Raphael, explained Ugail.

“Madonna della Rosa,” which hangs in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, has long been subject to debate, said study co-author Howell Edwards, emeritus professor of molecular spectroscopy at the University of Bradford, in a press release.

“Some connoisseurs regard the quality of the composition and painting for the Madonna, Child and St John as far exceeding that of St Joseph, whom they feel has been added at the workshop as somewhat of an afterthought,” Edwards said.

“The AI programme analysis of our work has demonstrated conclusively that whereas the three figures of the Madonna, Christ Child and St John the Baptist are unequivocally painted by Raphael, that of St Joseph is not and has been painted by someone else,” added Edwards.

Debate around AI in art

The algorithm builds on previous research which found that a painting known as the “de Brécy Tondo” was likely to be a genuine Raphael, contradicting some art historians who said that the painting was a copy made in the 19th century.

The findings sparked criticism from some art historians, who Ugail said were “a bit dismissive” of the research.

“I was a little bit taken aback,” he said, explaining that the algorithm analyzed details that are beyond the capabilities of the human eye.

“It will be very, very difficult, no matter how good somebody is, to actually go into that level of detail and create something like that,” Ugail told CNN.

Professor Hassan Ugail, University of Bradford, with the de Brecy Tondo.

Hassan Ugail pictured with the de Brécy Tondo.University of Bradford

The debate around the “de Brécy Tondo” feeds into wider discussions about the role of AI in art authentication, which Ugail sees as complimentary to other forms of analysis, such as researching the provenance of a work.

“This is just another tool,” said Ugail, who emphasized that the algorithm can be used to determine whether a mysterious artwork merits further investigation.

“This is a very quick way of testing whether to look deeper into a painting,” he said.

Next, Ugail plans to develop an algorithm capable of recognizing works by other artists, which he says will bring science into art authentication.

“The potential for this kind of tool is huge,” he said.

A peer-reviewed paper on the work was published Thursday in Heritage Science journal.

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