As one of the grisliest pictures he painted, Titian's The Martyrdom of St Lawrence has exerted a horrified fascination for art lovers for centuries.
The masterpiece depicts the unfortunate saint, who had incurred the wrath of imperial Rome for his Christian beliefs, being slowly roasted on a gridiron heated by a blazing fire.
But nearly 500 years after it was painted, an intriguing new detail has come to light, previously unnoticed by scholars – an apparent self-portrait of the Renaissance master, tucked away in the bottom left hand corner of the 15ft-high work.
A year-long restoration has revealed a man's head, swathed in a turban, gazing at the saint as he writhes on the red-hot gridiron and extends his arm in agony to the heavens.
The man's face bears a striking resemblance to known portraits of Titian, one of the giants of the Renaissance who was born Tiziano Vecellio in Belluno in what was then the Venetian Republic in around 1488.
The age of the mystery man also seems to correspond with that of Tiziano – he painted The Martyrdom of St Lawrence over more than a decade, between 1546 and 1558, when he was in his fifties and sixties.
"The similarity with the profile, and particularly the long, slightly hooked nose, is very striking," said Prof Lionello Puppi, an expert on Titian who has studied the results of the restoration.
"We believe it may very well be a self-portrait by Titian. It is still to be verified and we are studying the archives to see if there are any other clues which might back it up. The key question of course is why he would have included himself in the painting." The answer may be that Titian had become enamoured of Elisabetta Querini, the wife of one of his patrons, and buried his own likeness in the masterpiece as an all-but-hidden tribute to her.
"She was a lady of great culture and beauty and there was a friendship between them," said Prof Puppi, an emeritus professor of art history at Ca' Foscari University of Venice.
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