Image: Painting
Museo Ideale Leonardo Da Vinci
In Raphael's work, "The Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine," shown here, the artist appears to have left his signature within decorations behind the Virgin Mary figure.
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updated 3/19/2010 2:16:08 PM ET 2010-03-19T18:16:08

Hidden beneath arabesque decorations, art experts have found what they believe is the earliest signature placed on a painting by the Renaissance master Raphael (1483-1520), who at the time was a 16-year-old boy.

Featuring the words "RAPHAEL SANT" — Santi was Raphael's real surname — the signature has been detected in an obscure painting that has been kept in private collections for the past three centuries.

The finding will be unveiled on Saturday in Gothenburg, Sweden, where the painting will go on public show as one of the star attractions of the exhibit " … And There Was Light."

Focusing on the works of Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael — the trinity of great masters of the Renaissance — the show runs until Aug. 15.

"The signature is really important. It actually makes this painting Raphael's earliest known work," leading UCLA art historian Carlo Pedretti, told Discovery News.

Showing Mary who sits enthroned, the infant Jesus, Catherine of Alexandria, St Jerome and a donor, the work has been kept in private hands for centuries, with the earliest reference dating to an eighteenth century collection in France.

"The painting bring us to the most obscure years of Raphael," Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale Leonardo Da Vinci and artistic director of the Swedish exhibition, told Discovery News.

Born in Urbino, 70 miles east of Florence, where the arts flourished under the patronage of the dukes of Montefeltro, Raphael learned the artistic rudiments by his father, the painter Giovanni Santi.

However, Santi's influence did not last long. He died when Raphael was 11. Having lost his mother three years earlier, the boy continued to run his father's workshop until around 1500, when he joined the workshop of the Umbrian painter Pietro Perugino. At 17, he was already being described by his contemporaries as a "master" of his craft.

"The fact that Raphael painted 'The Mystical Marriage of St Catherine' at 16 should not come as a surprise. It is an unripe painting, interesting as it shows the kind of training Raphael received as an apprentice," Vezzosi said.

Some 15 years later, Raphael, the painter of sweet Madonnas, had become one of the three most famous artists on Earth, together with Michelangelo and Leonardo. He garnered wealth and power and was acclaimed for his stunning frescoes in the Vatican's papal rooms. In 1514, Raphael was even appointed over Michelangelo to serve as the architect in charge of St. Peter's Cathedral.

Indeed for centuries, he was considered the greatest modern painter in the West, his artworks frequently copied and counterfeited.

"It is not the case of the St. Catherine painting. Laboratory investigations have confirmed that the letters of the signature in the lower part of the mantle are original and contemporary to the painting," Pedretti said.

According to Vezzosi, the unique signature calls for further research.

"Indeed, this is a fascinating findings. Much more has to be discovered about this painting and its provenance," Vezzosi said.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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