Remains of Famous Renaissance Artist Raphael Finally Identified

The Italian Renaissance artist Raffaello Sanzio, more famously known as Raphael, died in 1520 AD. In 1833, an anonymous skeleton was exhumed from its grave in Rome’s Pantheon that was suspected of having belonged to the great artist. Now, a 3D reconstruction has proven “without a doubt” that these are indeed the remains of the late and great artist Raphael.

The Artistic Legacy of the Painter Raphael

Raffaello (Raphael) was born in Urbino, Italy in 1483 AD and he died at the age of 37 in 1520 AD after reaching great heights as a High Renaissance artist along with Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci . Encyclopaedia Britannica says this master painter and architect of the Italian High Renaissance is best known for his Madonnas and for his large figure compositions in the Vatican. His work is admired by art historians for its exceptional clarity of form and compositional ease.

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It is thought that Raphael learned his craft from the great Umbrian master painter Pietro Perugino, who created the frescoes in the Collegio del Cambio at Perugia between 1498 and 1500 AD. Raphael is believed to have acquired his extensive painting skill set and knowledge of the dynamic of the human form in Perugino‘s workshop. In was between 1501 and 1503 AD that Raphael received his greatest commission: to paint the  Coronation of the Virgin  for the Oddi Chapel in the church of San Francesco, Perugia (now in the Vatican).

‘Coronation of the Virgin’ by Raphael. (CC BY SA 4.0)

‘Coronation of the Virgin’ by Raphael. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

A Result with No Doubts

The team of scientists from Rome’s Tor Vergata University reconstructed the face of the unknown man who was suspected to be the late artist. Molecular biologist Mattia Falconi said the image was built on the measurement of the skeleton exhumed in 1833, “using a plaster cast of the skull that was made at the time.”

Based on comparisons with portraits of Raphael by artists of the period, as well as self-portraits, a Daily Mail report says that following the 3D reconstruction the research team determined “it was a clear match.” And while the 3D reconstruction only produced 80% of the man’s face, the scientists say that they are 100% sure “there is no doubt about the results”.

Self-portrait of Raphael (Public Domain) compared to the new facial reconstruction. (Tor Vergata University)

Self-portrait of Raphael ( Public Domain ) compared to the new facial reconstruction. ( Tor Vergata University )

Italy’s Number One Historical Mystery is Solved

Where Raphael’s body was laid to rest was a historical mystery, and so too was the cause of his death – which seems to have occurred because the artist let his ‘little head’ rule over his big head. By this I mean that while many historians speculate his hyper-active sex life led to a fatal dose of syphilis, others maintain he died from pneumonia “after traveling to see a lover in the dead of winter,” according the article in the Daily Mail. Either way, he died satisfying his carnal desires.

In an article about this discovery on PHYS, Dr. Mattia Falconi says the only part of the face that could not be reconstructed was the ears, but “fortunately Raphael had long hair that covered his ears.” The 3D model does however show the man’s eyes and mouth, and Falconi said ”We know that Raphael often painted himself younger than his years, and this model allows us to see him as he really was.” He  concluded that the team has “concrete evidence for the first time that the skeleton exhumed in 1833 belongs to Raffaello Sanzio.”

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The next step in this project is to re-exhume the famous painter’s body, but this phase was put on hold due to the Coronavirus pandemic, in response to the country being particularly hard hit with the European strain of Coronavirus.

While onsite archaeologists are prohibited from working in Italy, the team of molecular scientists will continue building their 3D reconstruction remotely – trying to determine Raphael’s accurate eye, hair, and skin color, to provide us all with a near lifelike image of this artistic giant.

Top Image: A facial reconstruction of the Renaissance painter Raphael. Source: Tor Vergata University

By Ashley Cowie

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