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3-D Facial Reconstruction Suggests Raphael Self-Portrait Presents Idealized Version of the Artist

The new model reveals the Renaissance giant’s prominent nose

Raphael's famed Uffizi self-portrait and the new facial reconstruction (Public domain / Tor Vergata University of Rome)
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Five hundred years after Raphael’s passing, the Italian artist continues to make headlines. Last month, researchers contested the theory that syphilis killed the 37-year-old painter, arguing that bloodletting and pneumonia actually caused his untimely demise. Now, a new 3-D facial reconstruction has revealed Raphael’s visage—and confirmed that his dying wish of being laid to rest at the Pantheon in Rome was fulfilled.

In 1833, workers exhumed several sets of bones from a crypt in the ancient temple. Raphael’s were supposedly among them, and before the remains were reinterred, a plaster cast of the Old Master’s presumed skull was made. Because several of The School of Athens artist’s students and apprentices were buried near him, however, researchers have long questioned whether the skull actually belonged to Raphael.

As Angela Giuffrida reports for the Guardian, researchers from Tor Vergata University of Rome used the plaster cast to create a 3-D reconstruction of its owner’s face. They then compared the model with the artist’s self-portraits, as well as likenesses painted by his contemporaries, and made a clear match.

“When we finished, I said to myself ‘I’ve seen that face before,’” molecular biologist Mattia Falconi tells Reuters’ Philip Pullella.

Though the reconstruction “only captures about 80 percent of the original face, … there’s no doubt about the result,” says Falconi to Agence France-Presse’s (AFP) Ella Ide. “It looks nothing like the students we know are buried there, and it would be too much of a coincidence for a stranger to look so similar.”

Raphael self-portrait with friend
A possible self-portrait of Raphael (left) and a friend, c. 1518 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

But one feature still had the researchers stumped: namely, Raphael’s nose, which is long and lithe in the Uffizi Gallery’s famous self-portrait but rather prominent in the reconstruction—in other words, notes Reuters, “Raphael probably didn’t like his nose, and replaced it with an idealized version.”

Speaking with AFP, Falconi says that the 3-D model’s eyes and mouth line up with Raphael’s self-portraits. “[B]ut he has been kind to himself about his nose,” the biologist adds.

Differences in the artist’s appearance could simply be the result of aging. Raphael painted the Uffizi portrait in 1507, when he was just 23, but the reconstruction—created using forensics methods employed by criminal investigators—shows what he looked like closer to his death in 1520.

According to AFP, the COVID-19 pandemic placed a planned exhumation of the artist’s remains on hold. If the project moves forward, the scientists may be able to conduct further analysis aimed at confirming Raphael’s hair and eye color, among other attributes.

“This research provides, for the first time, concrete proof that the skeleton exhumed from the Pantheon in 1833 belonged to [Raphael],” says Olga Rickards, a molecular anthropologist at Tor Vergata University, to the Guardian, “and opens the paths toward possible future molecular studies aimed at validating this identity.”

Per French newspaper Le Figaro, the researchers’ findings are set to be published in the journal Nature. A life-size bust of the facial reconstruction will also go on permanent view at a museum in Raphael’s birthplace of Urbino.

About Courtney Sexton
Courtney Sexton

Courtney Sexton, a writer and researcher based in Washington, DC, studies human-animal interactions. She is a 2020 AAAS Mass Media Fellow and the co-founder and director of The Inner Loop, a nonprofit organization for writers.

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