January 17, 2012 / Art & Archaeology

You don’t mess with perfection, right? There’s a reason they’re called “masters”, no? As in, the be-alls end-alls of Renaissance art, key figures in the development of all western art, immutable…

Wrong! Take this painting for example. The photo is of the painting as it appeared until 1934. Until then, it was just a painting, artist unknown, of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, wheel and all (symbol of her martyrdom). Trouble is, during the restoration (1934) they discovered that at some point someone had painted the wheel and shawl on. Removing them revealed a previous version of a lady with a unicorn. So much for Catherine.

liocorno2“Huh… strange,” the restoration team must have thought. “Now that we think about it, it really looks like that drawing in the Louvre, that study of a woman that we know was done… by Raphael!”

Ah, a rediscovered masterpiece! For 60 years everyone gushed about this lovely Lady with Unicorn, a Raphael, brought back to light!

liocorno3Nuh-uh. Not so fast… Raphael you said? Recent x-ray analysis reveals that Raphael only painted the sky, the columns, the landscape, and the woman but just her up to her waist. We don’t know why he stopped. But at some point later, someone, maybe Sogliani, decided to finish the portrait itself and added a lap dog.

Fast forward a few more decades, and before yet someone else turned her into Saint Catherine mentioned earlier, another artist turned the lap dog into a little (messily done) unicorn. So much for “Raphael’s” masterpiece… more of a Renaissance mash-up if there ever was one!

Not too shabby, none-the-less…

(Visible at the Museo di Villa Borghese, Rome)



by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

13 Responses to “Untouchable?”

  1. Louise Matarazzo

    How beautiful she is, no matter who painted her. Where is she now?

  2. Lewis A. Turlish

    Villa Borghese is a wonderful museum, set in a lovely park. Don’t miss the magnificent marble statue of a nude Pauline Borghese, sister of Napoleon Bonaparte.

  3. Gosh! I thought for sure you were going to say she finally morphed into the Mona Lisa!

  4. Raphael moved on to Rome after his Florentine period and died in 1519. Perhaps he left it unfinished and it was completed after his death by someone in his workshop as he was highly valued and long remembered by contemporaries who often liked to set him against (much to his distress) The Divine Michelangelo.

  5. giuseppe spano (jojo)
    giuseppe spano (jojo)

    I really gave this much thought and realized that it is much like my great-great grandmothers sugo ,that all of our woman from she on down swear to have the original.

  6. Hmmm…. there seems to be a lot of this in the old paintings. DaVinci’s paintings especially are known to have other things underneath the paint. I wonder how many of the old masters have been enhanced along the way?


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