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ART

How Italian art experts solved the mystery of Raphael’s tomb – by reconstructing his face

Art sleuths have created a 3D reconstruction of the face of Italian painter Raphael, solving an age-old mystery over his final resting place, Rome's Tor Vergata University told AFP on Thursday.

How Italian art experts solved the mystery of Raphael's tomb – by reconstructing his face
Art historians weren't sure whether remains buried in Rome's Pantheon really belonged to Raphael. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

The artist, a child prodigy and part of a trinity of Renaissance greats along with Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, died in 1520, aged only 37.

A red rose graces his tomb in Rome's Pantheon all year round. His body was exhumed in the 19th century, at which point a plaster cast of his skull was made.

But experts were not sure the remains really belonged to Raphael, for the excavation also unearthed other full and partial skeletons. Several of the skeletons belonged to the artist's students, but others went unidentified.

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Popular myth has it that the Renaissance painter, who was said to have had an active sex life, succumbed to syphilis in 1520, though experts widely agree that he died of pneumonia, possibly after visiting lovers late on freezing nights.

As Rome marked 500 years since his death this year, the university team set about making a 3D reconstruction of the plaster cast. It found a clear match with the Raphael pictured in portraits by other artists in the period, as well as the artist's self-portraits, molecular biology expert Mattia Falconi told AFP.

“We have concrete evidence for the first time that the skeleton exhumed in 1833 belongs to Raffaello Sanzio,” Falconi said.

A 3D-reconstruction “only captures 80 percent of the original face, but there's no doubt about the result. 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”.

Falconi said the only part of the face that could not be reconstructed this way were the ears — “but fortunately Raphael had long hair that covered his ears”.

Confirmation the skeleton is Raphael's opens the door to further analysis of the skeleton to determine hair and eye colour.


Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

A project to re-exhume the body this year was put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, but if it resumes Falconi said his team would be interested in seeing how faithful the artist was to his real self.

“The 3D model shows the eyes and mouth [in the portraits] are his, but he has been kind to himself about his nose,” he said. “We know that Raphael often painted himself younger than his years, and this model allows us to see him as he really was”.

A life-size 3D-printed bust of the man dubbed the “Prince of Painters” by fellow artist and famed 16th-century biographer Giorgio Vasari will go on display at the museum at his birthplace in Urbino in Italy's Marche region.

Despite his premature death, Raphael produced a vast oeuvre of seminal work, much of it at the Vatican, whose opulent museums include several rooms filled with his frescoes. Completed by Raphael's students after his death, they remain some of the Vatican's most popular rooms.

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CULTURE

Why Friday the 13th isn’t an unlucky date in Italy

Unlucky for some, but not for Italians. Here's why today's date isn't a cause for concern in Italy - but Friday the 17th is.

Why Friday the 13th isn't an unlucky date in Italy

When Friday the 13th rolls around, many of us from English-speaking countries might reconsider any risky plans. And it’s not exactly a popular date for weddings in much of the western world.

But if you’re in Italy, you don’t need to worry about it.

There’s no shortage of strongly-held superstitions in Italian culture, particularly in the south. But the idea of Friday the 13th being an inauspicious date is not among them.

Though the ‘unlucky 13’ concept is not unknown in Italy – likely thanks to the influence of American film and TV – here the number is in fact usually seen as good luck, if anything.

The number 17, however, is viewed with suspicion and Friday the 17th instead is seen as the unlucky date to beware of.

Just as some Western airlines avoid including the 13th row on planes, you might find number 17 omitted on Italian planes, street numbering, hotel floors, and so on – so even if you’re not the superstitious type, it’s handy to be aware of.

The reason for this is thought to be because in Roman numerals the number 17 (XVII) is an anagram of the Latin word VIXI, meaning ‘I have lived’: the use of the past tense apparently suggests death, and therefore bad luck. It’s less clear what’s so inauspicious about Friday.

So don’t be surprised if, next time Friday 17th rolls around, you notice some Italian shops and offices closed per scaramanzia’.

But why then does 13 often have a positive connotation in Italy instead?

You may not be too surprised to learn that it’s because of football.

Ever heard of Totocalcio? It’s a football pools betting system in which players long tried to predict the results of 13 different matches.

There were triumphant calls of ho fatto tredici! – ‘I’ve done thirteen’ – among those who got them all right. The popular expression soon became used in other contexts to mean ‘I hit the jackpot’ or ‘that was a stroke of luck!’

From 2004, the number of games included in Totocalcio rose to 14, but you may still hear winners shout ‘ho fatto tredici’ regardless.

Other common Italian superstitions include touching iron (not wood) for good luck, not toasting with water, and never pouring wine with your left hand.

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