When Raphael meets the AI: The Battle for the De Brécy Tondo

July 31, 2023
2 mins read
The de Brécy Tondo Raphaël - AI
© Photo: Sang Tan/AP
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A narrative as captivating as the divine artworks it revolves around, the attribution of the “de Brécy Tondo” continues to set the art world abuzz. A painting wrapped in enigma and argued over in hushed whispers in hallowed museum halls, the “de Brécy Tondo” has long awaited its day under the spotlight. With the entry of Artificial Intelligence into the domain of art provenance, the limelight has shifted, intensifying the focus on this artwork and its disputed association with the Renaissance master, Raphael.

Stepping out from the shadows of obscurity, the alleged masterpiece by Raphael, the “de Brécy Tondo,” finds itself in the glaring spotlight of controversy. Its validity, traditionally scrutinized by human experts, now finds an unlikely ally in the cold, calculating domain of Artificial Intelligence. But as we plunge into this unchartered intersection of art and technology, one must wonder – is AI’s lens truly capable of discerning the deft touches of a genius from mere imitation?

In the quaint city of Bradford, ensconced amidst the historical grandeur of the Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, a two-month-long exhibition drew the attention of art aficionados worldwide. The star attraction was none other than the “de Brécy Tondo,” a painting that has sparked heated debates over its authorship. The tondo’s journey has been a tumultuous one, taking it from relative obscurity to the center stage, thanks to the experimental application of artificial intelligence by researchers from the Universities of Nottingham and Bradford.

The “de Brécy Tondo” portrays a youthful Madonna cradling an infant Jesus, a subject Raphael often depicted. Art historians have argued over whether it’s an original work by Raphael or a later replica, possibly created any time between the artist’s lifetime and the 19th century. It’s a significant question, not just for academic interests, but also because confirmed works by Raphael carry enormous price tags.


However, AI is potentially changing the face of art attribution. A sophisticated facial recognition model developed by Professor Hassan Ugail, a visual computing specialist at the University of Bradford, has shown promising results. The model indicated a striking 97% similarity between the Virgin Mary in the disputed “de Brécy Tondo” and the acknowledged Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. It also identified an 86% similarity between the infants depicted in the two paintings.

The application of AI in the art world is viewed by some as a much-needed modernization. AI could provide dimensions previously inaccessible to the human eye and mind. However, the traditional art world, steeped in centuries of expertise and nuances, expresses skepticism. Experts argue that the complex tapestry of art cannot be fully decoded through algorithms.

Rudolf Hiller von Gaertringen, an eminent art historian, believes Raphael would have been unlikely to replicate his earlier works at the zenith of his career. Patricia Emison, an Italian Renaissance expert, agrees, stating that to “repaint the Madonna and child motif… is beneath his artistic dignity.”

Yet, the appeal of AI in art attribution is compelling. It promises a level of objectivity that could potentially remove biases and subjectivity inherent in human experts’ judgments. It could make the art world fairer, more transparent, and democratized. However, the age-old argument persists – can AI ever really replace the accumulated wisdom, keen eyes, and nuanced understanding of human art experts?

As this debate rages on, the enigmatic “de Brécy Tondo” remains at the eye of the storm. AI may not deliver a definitive verdict on the painting’s provenance, but it surely underscores how technology is fast becoming a fixture of the art world, and a potential game-changer in the exploration of art’s captivating mysteries.

Click on this link to read this article in French version

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