Researcher Who Discovered Raphael’s Long-Lost Mary Magdalene Speaks Out in an Exclusive Interview

Mary-Magdalene by Raphael Sanzio, poplar panel, 46,3cm x 33,7cm

Following the recent unveiling of Raphael Sanzio’s painting depicting Mary Magdalene, the art community was abuzz with enthusiasm, curiosity, and criticism. Numerous high-profile articles and videos were published, chronicling this historic find. While acclaimed by certain art connoisseurs and scholars, the research conducted by experts faced scrutiny from skeptics, raising questions about the masterpiece’s authenticity. In an effort to set the record straight, explain the scientific processes involved, and respond to the critiques, Annalisa Di Maria, one of the principal researchers behind this remarkable revelation, granted an exclusive interview to The World Art News. During this conversation, she provided valuable insights, addressing the concerns that had surfaced in response to this groundbreaking discovery.


Annalisa Di Maria is an expert in the art of the Renaissance and Florentine Neoplatonism, a specialist of Leonardo da Vinci, and a member of the executive committee and group of experts of the UNESCO club of Florence.

Can you elaborate on the elements that led you to conclude that the recently rediscovered work, Mary Magdalene, attributed to Raphael, is indeed authentic?

Examining the work visually was the initial step, providing valuable clues about its historical and artistic context. The intricate stylistic details compelled us to conduct extensive scientific examinations, involving pigment analysis, imagery, and support. Through these analyses, we discovered the use of the spolvero method, involving the transfer of a preparatory drawing onto the painting’s support and multiple alterations until the final version emerged. The presence of these elements, along with historical evidence found in Florence’s archives, confirmed that the portrait of Chiara Fancelli with the image of Mary Magdalene originates from Raphael’s creative imagination.


Could you explain what a repentance is and its significance in authenticating artworks?

A repentance refers to intentional modifications made to a painting during different stages of production. Detecting repentances helps in defining the original work. In the case of Raphael’s works, infra-red reflections reveal preparatory descriptions, offering insights into the painting’s creation process and methods. This examination enables us to distinguish between original versions and copies, enhancing the reliability of attributions. Notably, artists like Rembrandt, Titian, or Velasquez often left repentances, distinguishing them from copyists who lack such subtleties.


Specifically, in Raphael’s Mary Magdalene, a significant repentance is visible on the nape of the neck. Could you elaborate on this and how it contributes to the authentication process?

In Raphael’s Mary Magdalene, a notable repentance is evident on the nape of the neck, where strands of hair were initially present but later obscured by a shadow.

Additionally, the face was enlarged, deviating from the original transfer line, concealed by sfumato. These details, alongside other technical indicators like the spolvero dotted line, distinguish the authentic work from any reproductions or copies.


It is important to note that the version of Perugino located at the Palatine Gallery revealed preparatory drawings with light lines, indicating the skill of a talented painter adept at reproducing what he sees. Repentances were discovered in Perugino’s version, specifically on the hands, which reflects the challenges in reproducing this intricate part of the artwork.

Comparing the hands reveals significant differences, including variations in nails, articulation, and stylistic treatment. Raphael’s version exhibits incredible finesse and unparalleled grace, whereas Perugino’s hands appear stiffer and less animated, with a noticeable flaw in the articulation of the index finger. Overall, Perugino’s copy appears more rigid and lacks the subtlety seen in Raphael’s work, indicating it is indeed a reproduction.


Who was Chiara Fancelli, the subject of this portrait of Saint Mary Magdalene, and how do artworks depicting her differ?

Chiara Fancelli was the wife of Perugino, who was both Raphael’s master and collaborator. As stated by Vasari in his biographical collection, Chiara Fancelli was a remarkable beauty and served as a model for both Perugino and Raphael. Before Raphael’s encounter with Leonardo da Vinci in Florence, he closely imitated Perugino’s style, making it challenging to distinguish their contributions in some paintings, such as the Solly Madonna and the Marriage of the Virgin.

Raphael’s depiction of Mary Magdalene marked a significant artistic shift influenced by his interactions with Leonardo da Vinci. Raphael was deeply inspired by Leonardo’s mastery of suave modeling, evident in works like the Mona Lisa and Leda. Despite their age difference, both artists shared a fervent pursuit of grace and ideal beauty in their creations.

What sets Raphael’s version of the Mary Magdalene portrait apart from that of his collaborator, Perugino?

Raphael’s version stands out significantly in both style and technique compared to Perugino’s. In this work, such as in the Madonna of the Grand Duke, Raphael transcends the constraints of traditional schools, showcasing his unique artistic personality. The rigidity seen in Perugino’s style vanishes in Raphael’s portrayal. According to art historian Nathalie Nolde, Raphael’s Mary Magdalene exhibits a delicate balance of softness and strength, with a lightness that surpasses Perugino’s version.

Raphael’s mastery lies in his ability to infuse life and soul into his subjects, akin to Leonardo’s approach. His paintings were more than mere representations; they captured the essence of the being and their emotional state. For Raphael, painting was a mental endeavor, a language that communicated profound emotions. His work embodied a picturesque psychology where science served the divine beauty, respecting the interplay of light and shadow and harmonious use of colors. Raphael, like Leonardo, understood that the gaze conveyed emotions universally, transcending language barriers.


Can you describe two distinctive aspects of this portrait, both scientifically and stylistically, that are characteristic of Raphael’s work?

From a scientific perspective, detailed macrophotography allowed us to examine the intricate manner in which Mary Magdalene’s eyes were painted. Raphael exhibited a unique technique, evident in the portrayal of the eyes. The pupils were partially covered by upper eyelids, revealing half-visible black pupils. Greenish shades surrounded or appeared above the pupils, while the iris displayed an orange-brown hue. The sclera exhibited white tones with subtle gray-blue shades. Raphael utilized small, bright pink brushstrokes to highlight the medial corner and employed varying shades of pink and purple in the eyelids. Delicate white brushstrokes simulated light reflections, showcasing Raphael’s meticulous approach, evident in his portraits of individuals like Baltazar Castiglione and Bindo Altoviti.

Similar to Leonardo, Raphael possessed the ability to imbue depth into the gaze and illuminate it. He understood that the gaze communicates emotions, and this universal language transcends borders and cultures.

From a stylistic perspective, Raphael devised a clever method to introduce uncertainty in the termination of outlines, creating a sfumato effect. Closer examination of his early 1500s portraits revealed a concentrated application of pigments along the facial contours, appearing irregularly applied. This technique, inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, allowed Raphael to impart a larger-than-life quality to his portraits. Although less subtle than Leonardo’s method, Raphael’s unique approach involved thinner glazes, laden with pigments. This technique, while different from Leonardo’s, enabled Raphael to achieve high-quality results with only two drying stages. His innovative sfumato technique, a blend of his own style and Leonardo’s influence, allowed him to swiftly meet the expectations of his patrons.


Following the announcement of the discovery in September 2023, there was public criticism regarding the attribution to Raphael, with claims that it could be a work by Perugino. What is your response to these objections?

Artnet has an obligation to transparency, including sharing all received information and criticisms. It’s likely that they will update their information as more details emerge, given that the post was released just last month. The objections raised by a small minority, who haven’t had access to the work and lack the patience for scientific publication, are unfounded and therefore insignificant. While I understand the suspicions surrounding such a significant discovery, attributing a work of this magnitude requires in-depth study and analysis, not merely a cursory glance. As a professional expert, my confidence in the attribution to Raphael is rooted in rigorous research and comprehensive examination.

Can you provide more details about the initial confusion surrounding the work’s attribution, where it was initially thought to possibly date back to the 19th century?

Certainly. The painting was part of a collection in the north of England and was put up for sale in a small London auction house. Unfortunately, due to time constraints and limited resources, thorough research was not conducted. It was overlooked that the original support was a poplar panel, which had been thinned for installation on the back of 19th-century Florentine parquet flooring. The painting was then acquired by a perceptive gallery owner, who resold it to the current owners, suggesting it dated back to the early 16th century and potentially originated from Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop. This incident underscores the critical role of advanced expertise that integrates art, science, and history in accurately attributing artworks.

Some observers have noted a resemblance between Mary Magdalene in this painting and Raphael’s self-portraits. What are your thoughts on this observation?

This resemblance can be attributed to what we refer to as the painter’s pictorial DNA. It signifies the inherent qualities present in all of an artist’s works, defined by traits like grace, harmony, and divine beauty. Artists often infuse their creations with a unique essence that characterizes their style. In this case, the shared attributes between Mary Magdalene in this painting and Raphael’s self-portraits could be seen as a testament to the artist’s distinctive touch and his ability to imbue his subjects with a profound sense of beauty and grace.

What are the intentions of the French collectors regarding this remarkable work?

The plan of the French collectors is to entrust this sublime work to a museum, allowing it to be shared with the public. Their aim is to provide others with the opportunity to experience the profound emotion emanating from this incredibly beautiful artwork.

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