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Famous Men portraits

Non invasive and micro invasive techniques
Cicero’s portrait, Ducal Palace of Urbino, the yellow points mark the places submitted to micro sampling

University of Bologna Scientific CoordinatorMazzeo Rocco - Associate Prof. - Alma HeritageScience IRT Coordinator - Dep. of Chemistry «Giacomo Ciamician»

Research Group:

  • Mazzeo Rocco - Associate Prof. - Alma HeritageScience IRT Coordinator - Dep. of Chemistry «Giacomo Ciamician»
  • Prati Silvia - Assistant Prof. - Dep. of Chemistry «Giacomo Ciamician»

Context and objectives

The 28 portraits of the Famous Men have been ordered by Federico da Montefeltre to decorate his studiolo in Urbino. Actually 14 portraits are still in Urbino, while the other 14 are conserved at the Louvre Museum in Paris. The attribution of the paintings has been the subject of a long debate between art historians which hypotise the collaboration of different painters in particular the Flemish Justus of Gent and the Spanish Pedro Berruguete. An intensive scientific campaign has started in 2008 in collaboration with the scientific laboratories of the Louvre Museum (C2RMF) in order to support attribution studies.

Methodologies and equipment

Non invasive and micro invasive techniques have been employed in order to understand the painting technique with particular attention to the underdrawing and painting layers composition.

In particular Multispectral Imaging, Infrared Reflectography, X-Ray radiography, portable X-Ray Fluorescence have been carried out on the 28 portraits and on the painting The Communion of the Apostles", that most of the art historians agreed to attribute to the Flemish painter Justus of Gent.

Micro samples have been analysed by means of X-ray Diffraction, Optical, μFTIR, μRaman and Environmental Scanning Electron Microscopy coupled with Energy Dispersive X-ray spectrometry (ESEM-EDS) and even Synchrotron micro X-ray Fluorescence (SR-μXRF)a performed on some of the paint cross sections.


The research is actually in progress, but from the preliminary results it can be stated that the paintings have been realised with the contribution of different painters.

Infrared Reflectography investigation, in facts, showed how the Famous Men underdrawings are characterized by an apparent homogeneity, even though style’s differences can be remarked. The three different groups have been identified one of which seems to be very close to "The Communion of the Apostles". The stratigraphical examinations allows to distinguish the presence in several samples of a translucent priming layer which is a typical feature of the Flemish painting tradition.

On the other hand, this priming layer is not present within all analysed paint cross sections and even within each single portrait. In fact, another type of priming, white in colour and not translucent has been found . Moreover in few occasions within the same portrait the contemporary presence and absence of a priming layer has been documented.