Imagine you are in a museum.  You wander the galleries and come upon an evocative portrait of a young noblewoman or withered crone (however you prefer) and start to wonder about who that person was.  You stumble to the information card with exhilaration, only to find the title “Portrait of Unknown Lady or Withered Crone”staring back at you.  Crestfallen, you shuffle onto another painting, forever tormented by the mystery of the portrait.  Who was she?  Why is she dressed in black?  Why is she important?

Alright, I do exaggerate, but I certainly cannot be alone in my frustration over unknown portraits and who they really were.  Putting faces to names has always helped me visualize historical events and personalities better.  Well, fortunately for me (and you) that frustration might become obsolete in the not too distant future.  

Image of the Laughing Cavlier (one of the unknown sitters we wish to identify)

According to this article, technology that is currently being used to track facial similarities in terrorists might also be used to identify unknown portraits.  Two art historians and an electrical engineer at University of California are working on a project they call FACES (Faces, Art and Computerised Evaluation Systems), which recently received funding to research how facial recognition software can be tweaked for unknown portraits.  Although there are inherent difficulties in trying to identify sitters with only one known portrait for example, initial tests on two identified portraits of Lorenzo di Medici were successful in charting facial similarities and overlaps.

Personally, I am just pleased that crime-fighting tools can be applied to solving historical mysteries.  I just hope that nameless crone in the gallery doesn’t turn out to be some rather dull draper’s wife with no great story.  It would totally ruin my image of a lovelorn pirate queen who founded a pirate utopia off the cost of Newfoundland.

Not that I’ve thought about it much.