I'm partial to Raphael and therefore much intrigued by the strange story that broke this week about his self-portrait. The painting on the left hangs at the Uffizi Museum in Florence and has long been acknowledged as Raphael by his own hand. But now its authenticity is challenged by the re-emergence from a bank vault of the painting on the right, which art historians deem a better likeness--he apparently did have a chin dimple, lucky guy--and, well, a better painting.
Art authentication is a fascinating subject. The forensics are fairly straightforward: methods and materials, biographical data, historical records, the toll of the years, etc. The aesthetics, however, are beguiling. Raphael was the equal of both Leonardo and Michelangelo, but who's to say that one of Raphael's students, his name lost to history, didn't improve upon the master's work with the second panel?
I can't arbitrate this controversy, but I can tell you a joke. After World War II, a lot of artwork changed hands on the black market. Laws to prevent the illegal exportation of significant or purloined works were inconsistently enforced. Nevertheless, one wealthy visitor to Italy, having purchased a Renaissance masterpiece sub rosa, took the precaution of hiring an artist to paint an innocuous landscape over it, using easily removed tempera colors. He got his painting through customs without incident and took it to an art restorer in New York to be "cleaned."
A few days later, the restorer called him and said: "I cleaned off the first layer of paint, like you said, but guess what--I found another layer of paint underneath it. So I cleaned that off, too. And guess what--under that I found a portrait of Mussolini."
Self portraits of Raphael, ca. 1505, when he was about 22. Click on the pictures for a closer look.