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Raphael Riddle Reexamined

de Brécy Tondo Could Be by
Renaissance Master

by Stan Parchin

Controversy is brewing around the recent publication of scientific findings purporting to substantiate the claim that the de Brécy Tondo could very well be by the hand of Italian High Renaissance master Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio or Santi, 1483-1520). The evidence used in the argument that the work can possibly be dated to the painter's lifetime appears in February 2007's issue of Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry (Vol. 387, No. 3).

Image © The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford;
Used with permission
Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio or Santi)
(Italian, 1483-1520)
Head of a Youth, Possibly a Self-Portrait, ca. 1500-2
Inscribed in ink at the bottom of the sheet:
Ritratto di se medessimo quando Giovane
("Portrait of himself when young")
Grey-black chalk heightened with white on faded paper
38.1 x 26.1 cm
Presented by a Body of Subscribers, 1846
158 P II 515
© The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Art collector George Lester Winward (1934-1997) purchased a tondo (round painting) of the Madonna and Child at a country house sale in North Wales on December 3, 1981. In the possession of Mrs. Violet Hope Fairbairn Wynne-Eyton (1892-1981) at the time of her demise, it has a fairly solid provenance or history of ownership. Winward soon discovered that the work remarkably resembled the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus in Raphael's Sistine Madonna (1513-14) in Dresden, Germany's Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister. The museum's scholars dismissed Winward's painting as a later partial copy of their masterpiece. After the death of Winward, most interested in the works of British Rococo and Romantic artist Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), the de Brécy Trust was established to take charge of his Old Master and Modern drawings, etchings, paintings and prints, making the benefactor's collection available for future generations to study. Vigorous research to authenticate the de Brécy Tondo as a work by Raphael continued for some 24 years.

Image © The The de Brécy Trust;
Used with permission
de Brécy Tondo,
15th-16th Centuries
Oil on canvas
Diam. 95 cm
© The de Brécy Trust

In Murdoch Lothian's doctoral dissertation, The Methods Employed to Provenance and to Attribute Putative Works by Raphael (Liverpool University, 1992), the former art correspondent for London's Guardian concluded that the de Brécy Tondo predates the Sistine Madonna. But he could not determine the painting's exact authorship. From January to May 2000, the work underwent some conservation and cleaning. Scholars subsequently met on November 1, 2002 at the Society of Antiquaries of London, Burlington House and recommended that further technical studies be conducted. Skeptics did note that the de Brécy Tondo falls within the dimensional range of six round compositions produced by Raphael between 1504 and 1514.

Howell G.M. Edwards and Timothy J. Binoy, secretary and trustee of George Lester Winward's foundation, published this month The de Brécy Madonna and Child Tondo Painting: a Raman Spectroscopic Analysis. This 10-page study describes the scholars' exhaustive scientific analyses of the late art collector's purchase. The painting was subjected to numerous scientific tests, including x-radiography and Raman spectroscopic analysis, a laser-based technology. Edwards and Binoy reported the presence of two historically significant pigments in the tondo. Turnsole (Folium) is a glowing dye used by late-medieval manuscript illuminators who valued its blue color for its vibrancy. Traces of massicot, a lead-based yellow pigment last detected in Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (ca.1670-72) by Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer (1662-1675), also appears in the painting. The existence of these two colors in the de Brécy Tondo established crucial chronological parameters for dating the work.

Image © Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden;
Used with permission
Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio or Santi)
(Italian, 1483-1520)
Sistine Madonna, 1513-14
Oil on canvas
265 x 196 cm
© Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

The Virgin and Child of both the de Brécy Tondo and Sistine Madonna are undeniably similar in appearance. But the huge disparity in both compositions' dimensions begs one to question the intention(s) of the artist(s) who painted them. The lofty beatific majesty of the Virgin Mary and Child evident in the Dresden painting glaringly contrasts with the visual immediacy of the smaller de Brécy Tondo, an image perhaps created for private household devotion. Modern science has yielded previously unknown details about the de Brécy Tondo. Yet the absence of firm documentary evidence regarding its origins continues to confound scholars seeking the identity of the work's author, be it Raphael, one of his followers or a contemporary.

For more information on the de Brécy Tondo, go to: www.debrecy.org.uk.

Special thanks to scientist Bob Marraccino.

For further reading:

Ajmar-Wollheim, Marta and Flora Dennis (eds.).
At Home in Renaissance Italy (exh. cat.).
London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 2006.

Chapman, Hugo, Tom Henry and Carol Plattozza,
et al. Raphael: From Urbino to Rome (exh. cat.).
London: National Gallery Company, 2004.

Wolk-Simon, Linda. Raphael at the Met:
The Colonna Altarpiece
(exh. cat.).
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006.


From your Guide: Stan Parchin, Senior Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in ancient, late-medieval and Renaissance art and history, and a regular contributor to About Art History. You may read all of his Special Exhibition and Catalogue Reviews here.

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