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The Czech cosmic startup that helped unveil the secrets of a lost Raphael

The painting was the subject of today’s press conference at the observatory of Prague’s Žižkov Television Tower. The conference featured Jiří Fajt, former director of the Czech National Gallery, InsightART’s restorer Jiří Lauterkranc and physicist Josef Uher, as well as Kateřina Syslová from the ESA BIC Prague space incubator.

The Czech cosmic startup that helped unveil the secrets of a lost Raphael Source: CzechInvest

The Renaissance artist Raffaello Santi – also known as Raphael – may have died 500 years ago, yet the experts are still discovering new aspects of his art. His Madonna and Child painting has a rich history encompassing some of Europe’s great historical figures, as well as violent fights and expensive art deals. Over the centuries, the painting has also seen its authenticity repeatedly, albeit unjustly, questioned. The authenticity of the piece was recently confirmed by the Czech company InsightART – one of the startups of the Business and Investment Development Agency CzechInvest-operated ESA BIC Prague business incubator, which utilizes cosmic detector technology.

InsightART’s RToo robotic scanner is one of the first x-ray machines specialized in art investigation. The scanner had already been used to unveil a previously unknown painting by Vincent van Gogh. This time around, it has helped explore the secrets of the lost Raphael. The machine uses a particle detector developed at CERN for the purposes of space exploration, manufactured by the Czech company ADVACAM.

„This technology – which is also used to measure radiation at the International Space Station – is capable of detecting and counting single photons, as well as establishing their exact wavelength,“ explains Josef Uher, a physicist and InsightART’s CTO. „While the standard x-ray machine only creates a black and white image,“ continues Uher, „RToo provides „color“ – or spectral – x-ray images, which allow the materials to stand out on the basis of their elemental composition. Besides making use of the special robotic platform, supplied by another Czech company, Radalitica, this is the key advantage of the RToo x-ray machine“.

„The artwork was scanned using spectral x-ray radiography. The resulting scans revealed in detail the internal structure of Raphael’s painting. Based on spectral x-ray imaging, it could be established that the overall concept of the painting was though through in great detail – from the foundation layers to the final glazes. It is evident that the painting was carefully ideated by Raphael himself and with a clear vision of its intended final form. The findings of the various analyses therefore confirm that the piece was painted by Raphael personally, without the aid of his workshop assistants and apprentices” says one of the restorers, Jiří Lauterkranc.

Thanks to the deployment of a space technology, the InsightART startup could take advantage of the business accelerator of the European Space Agency (ESA BIC). „We are used to different kinds of technological applications which may make use of satellite data, navigation systems, airplanes or satellites. However, the combination of space technology and art is very unconventional – we only have one such project,“ says Michal Kuneš, the project manager of the ESA BIC.

History of the painting

The Madonna and Child painting signed and dated „Raphael Urbinas Pingebat MDXVII, Roma“ was painted by Raffaello Santi in 1517 at the commission of Pope Leo X. The piece was to be placed on the altar of the Sanctuary of the Holy House of Loreto. One year later, Raphael used the same motive for his Great Holy Family painting which the Pope donated to the French royal family, and which later became part of the Louvre collection. Meanwhile, Raphael’s 1517 Madonna and Child remained in the Vatican until 1798, i.e. until the pontificate of Pius VI. After the occupation of Rome by one of Napoleon’s armies, the painting was taken to Paris where it became part of Napoleon’s collection. After Napoleon’s fall in 1813, the painting became property of the French Bourbon king Louis XVIII, who in turn sold it to Charles Bosanquet, the first Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University. Bosanquet’s family owned the painting until 1928, when it made its way back to France thanks to Dr. Hahn, an art dealer. In Paris, the painting was acquired by Ernst Beleuer who brought it to Prague and subsequently sold it to Otomar Švehla. Švehla offered the painting to the Czechoslovak President’s Office, as well as to Third Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler. However, neither transaction took place and after Švehla’s death the painting fell to his wife, Emilie Švehlová. In 1992, the painting found itself in Slovakia where it was bought by a Czech entrepreneur who exported it from the country.

Since then, the Madonna and Child was studied by several world-renowned experts and Raphael specialists, such as Professors Baldini, De Vecchi, Chiarini, Marabotti and Pedretti. Czech experts also took part in the process and it was Professor Raymond Ondráček who – on the grounds of previous investigations – started restoring the painting in 2002. Later, Professor Ondráček’s work was continued by another two Czech fine art restorers, Jiří Lauterkranc a Jiří Živný. The restoration, concluded only in 2019, took place under the scrutiny of an international advisory board composed of experts from Italian and Czech leading institutions. The board included, among others, restorers Lorenza d’Alessandro, Antonio Forcellino and Paolo Violini, as well as art historians Msgr. Timothy Verdon and Jiří Fajt. The last part of the process took place 2019 and included the reviewing and updating of all previous analyses and investigations of the painting. In order to finetune the restoration strategy and process, a series of analyses was repeated, which took advantage of the latest technology available. Some of the analyses also focused on the circumstances under which Raphael’s Madonna and Child came to light, as well as on its relation to the Great Holy Family, its sibling painting from 1518. These examinations mainly included the exact identification of the under-drawing, the technological construction and the internal structure of the painting. It was at this stage that the Czech company InsightART and its robotic scanner RToo were invited to be a part of the project.

About InsightART
InsightART is a subsidiary of ADVACAM. Founded by the physicist Josef Uher, the entrepreneur Jan Sohar and the restorer Jiří Lauterkranc, InsightART specializes in verifying the authenticity of artworks with special x-ray technology. Its uniqueness resides in the sensitivity of the analysis, which can be performed in color and without disturbing the structure of the painting. The technology can therefore help authenticate an artwork for a fraction of its value. In 2018, InsightART successfully used the technology to discover a previously unknown piece by Vincent van Gogh.

About ESA BIC Prague and Brno
The space incubator ESA BIC Prague was founded in May 2016 as a part of the European Space Agency’s Business Incubation Center network (ESA BIC). The BIC centers host and support innovative technological startups which deploy, advance and commercialize space technologies. The ESA BIC Prague is operated by CzechInvest, with further support by the Prague City Hall, the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Industry and Trade. The incubator is based in Prague’s Adria Palace. The ESA BIC Brno was founded in March 2018. Based in the premises of Brno’s South Moravian Innovation Centre, ESA BIC Brno is supported by the South Moravian Region. Find out more at www.esa-bic.cz.

About CzechInvest
CzechInvest plays a key role in the area of supporting business and investments in its comprehensive form. The agency’s unique combination of regional, central and international operations ensures the integrity of services and the ability to connect global trends with regional conditions in the Czech Republic. One of CzechInvest’s main objectives is transformation of the Czech Republic into an innovation leader of Europe. Established in 1992, CzechInvest is a state contributory organisation subordinate to the Ministry of Industry and Trade of the Czech Republic. Find out more at www.czechinvest.org/en.