According to AI research, an image with a mysterious origin is probably Raphael

A painting with a mysterious origin is likely Raphael’s masterpiece, researchers in the UK have found after using facial recognition technology and artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze the portrait.

Renaissance painting, called de Brécy Tondo, has been widely studied for over 40 years. Researchers from the University of Nottingham and the University of Bradford used an artificial intelligence facial recognition system developed by Hassan Ugail, a professor of visual computing at Bradford, to determine its likely creator.

Instead of DNA, the system uses DNN – a deep neural network – that identifies patterns in images and videos. The system is more accurate than the human eye and was able to analyze the similarities of the image to another one created by Raphael.

According to the National Gallery in London, which houses some of his paintings, the Italian Renaissance painter is considered “more versatile than Michelangelo and more prolific than their older contemporary Leonardo.”

Painting de Brécy Tondo and Raphae's Sistine Madonna side by side.  / Source: University of Nottingham & University of Bradford

Painting de Brécy Tondo and Raphae’s Sistine Madonna side by side. / Source: University of Nottingham and University of Bradford

Ugail said the facial recognition system is powered by AI, “by which millions of facial images are fed into a machine learning algorithm that learns the ‘deep’ features and characteristics of the human face.”

“These characteristics can be physical attributes (e.g. shapes, colors and facial textures), but also many (potentially thousands of features) that cannot be described visually or physically,” Ugail said in an email to CBS News. “In that sense, the analysis done with these facial recognition systems can compare two facial images in much more detail and could surpass humans.”

Technology has discovered that de Brécy Tondo’s depiction of a woman and child is very close to Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, which also depicts a very similar woman and child.

A woman looks at Raphael's 1513

A woman observes Raphael’s 1513 “Sistine Madonna” by Raphael in the Gobelin room of the Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) in Dresden, Germany, March 27, 2013. / Credit: Matthias Hiekel/picture Alliance via Getty Images

The so-called Madonnas in each image had a 97% similarity, while the children in each had an 86% similarity – according to research, a similarity of more than 75% is considered identical.

Ugail said this technology is used for identity recognition and authentication in criminal investigations and routine identity verification. It can also be used in medical image analysis to help diagnose diseases such as cancer.

The painting was part of the de Brécy Trust, an art collection owned by the late George Lester Winward. He donated his collection to a trust to be available to art scholars and researchers.

The Trust had previously analyzed de Brécy Tondo and found its pigments to be pre-17th-century works, and according to Howell Edwards, professor and honorary research adviser to the trust, it was not a Victorian copy.

The School of Athens, 1508-1511, by Raphael (1483-1520), fresco, Room of the Segnatura, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.  / Source: DEA / V. PIROZZI

The School of Athens, 1508-1511, by Raphael (1483-1520), fresco, Room of the Segnatura, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. / Source: DEA / V. PIROZZI

An analysis conducted over four years by the late Raphael specialist Dr. Murdoch Lothian concluded that Tondo was likely Raphael, Timothy Benoy, the trust’s honorary secretary, told CBS News via email.

“The view of other specific art historians consulted, including some Italian Renaissance and Raphael experts, was that Tondo is a ‘possible’ Raphael.”

Dr Christopher Brooke, an honorary research fellow at the University of Nottingham, told CBS News by email that the study was “a major step forward in the use of machine learning in art history”.

“This is a very robust study with positive results,” said Brooke, co-author of the study and an expert in church art history and remote sensing techniques.

Raphael, whose full name was Raffaello Santi, was appointed architect of St. Peter’s Basilica until his death. Peter in the Vatican. The project was taken over by several architects, the most notable being Michelangelo. One of Raphael’s most famous paintings is The School of Athens.

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