Piece of papal fresco puzzle

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A mystery that has tantalised art scholars for centuries moved closer to resolution yesterday when part of a scandalous Renaissance fresco came to light after almost 400 years.

The fresco, painted by the early Renaissance artist Pinturicchio (1454-1513) for the Borgia apartments in the Vatican, showed the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, kneeling at the feet of the Madonna and child and cradling the infant Jesus's right foot in his hand.

It was an open secret at the court that the Madonna in the fresco was Giulia Farnese, the 60-year-old pope's beautiful young married mistress, and there was speculation that the baby might have been one of their children.

Alexander VI was notorious for his love of luxury and women -- he openly had four children, including Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia, by his previous mistress, Vanozza Catanei.

When Fabio Chigi, a scholarly and deeply spiritual man, became Pope Alexander VII in 1655 he had the fresco broken up as part of a campaign to obliterate the legacy of his infamous Borgia namesake.

According to Franco Ivan Nucciarelli, an art historian at Italy's Perugia University who has reconstructed the saga of the ''lost fresco'', the portraits of the Madonna and the infant Jesus ended up in the Chigi family collection, over time becoming misattributed to another artist, Perugino.

Professor Nucciarelli said, however, that he had identified them from a contemporary copy of the lost Pinturicchio masterpiece. The fragment depicting the infant was recently bought for an undisclosed sum from the Chigi family by Giuseppe Margaritelli, a Perugia industrialist.

He has donated it to the Guglielmo Giordano Foundation, a museum in the town, where it will go on show this year.

Fabio Isman, art correspondent for Rome newspaper Il Messaggero, said the Chigi family still had the corresponding fragment showing Farnese as the Madonna but apparently did not intend to part with it.

''As for the portrait of the kneeling Borgia pope, its fate is unknown,'' he said.

Claudio Strinati, superintendent of fine arts in Rome, said there was no doubt that the newly discovered work was by Pinturicchio.

Born Bernardino di Betti in Perugia, Pinturicchio assisted Perugino in his frescoes in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.

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