Page last updated at 14:10 GMT, Saturday, 25 October 2008 15:10 UK

Work by Raphael restored to glory

Uffizi gallery in Florence
The Uffizi gallery will be happy to see the return of the painting

Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch - considered a Renaissance masterpiece - is to return to public view after 10 years of restoration.

It will go on display next month in Florence's Palazzo Medici before returning to its long-time home, the city's Uffizi Gallery.

"We will celebrate it like the return of our prodigal daughter," Antonio Natali of the Uffizi told Reuters.

The painting shows the Madonna with two children caressing a goldfinch bird.

The 107 cm by 77 cm oil on wood work is known in Italian as the Madonna del Cardellino.

The two children symbolise the young Christ and John the Baptist. The goldfinch is a symbol of Christ's future Passion because the bird feeds among thorns.

I think I probably know this painting almost better than Raphael.
Chief restorer Patrizia Riitano

The work underwent restoration because it had suffered over the years - from being shattered into several pieces to general wear and tear the mistakes of past interventions.

Painstaking restoration has removed centuries of brown film and grime to leave colours approaching their original state.

"This patient gave us the most shivers and the most sleepless nights," said Marco Ciatti of Florence's Opificio Delle Pietre Dure, one of Italy's state-run art restoration labs.

"We spent two whole years studying it before deciding whether to go ahead because with the damage it suffered in the past - which was clearly visible in the X-rays - a restoration attempt could go wrong."

Shattered work

Raphael, who lived from 1483 to 1520, painted the panel in about 1506 as a gift for the marriage of Lorenzo Nasi, a wool merchant.

When the Nasi house collapsed in 1547, the work shattered into 17 pieces.

Ridolfo di Ghirlandaio, a Raphael contemporary, used nails to join the pieces and paint to hide fractures.

It later became part of the collection of Florence's powerful Medici family, who commissioned several interventions to cover traces of the breaks.

But this latest restoration involved doing the exact opposite by removing all the extra layers used in the past.

Chief restorer Patrizia Riitano said: "I think I probably know this painting almost better than Raphael.

"He looked at it, sure, but all these years I have been looking at it with a microscope.

"I wonder if he is satisfied. I hope so. Perhaps he'll send me a message from the beyond, maybe an SMS."

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