An Oct. 23 article on the artist Raphael incorrectly said that the town of Urbino is in the Umbria region of Italy. It is in the Marches region. (Published 12/10/04)

The Renaissance artist painted Jesus flanked by two saints on a ceremonial banner used by a Roman Catholic brotherhood. He decided to sign it with his monogram, a privilege usually reserved for masters.

As the painter was no more than 16 years old and working in a provincial town far from the art capitals of Rome and Florence, it was a bold act. As if to emphasize his self-assurance, the artist repeated the monogram, in gilt, several times along the edge of a cloak worn by one of the figures, St. Ubaldo.

Five hundred years later, restorers of the badly weathered banner would marvel at the letters: R's intertwined with V's. They identified them as the mark of Raphael, one of the era's most prodigious painters.

"There's no doubt this is a very early Raphael," said Giordana Benazzi, an art historian and fine arts supervisor for Italy's Umbria region. "He's already a genius. This could be his first conserved work. It changes what we know about the young Raphael."

Such discoveries cause excitement in Italy. Although the lives and times of artists have been exhaustively investigated, there are always holes in their histories, especially in the early years, when they usually labored in obscurity in workshops or as apprentices to established artists.

In this case, the appearance of a monogram suggests a self-confident teenager aware of his talent and willing to flaunt it. It would be rare for anyone to put his monogram, much less his name, on a sacred painting meant for religious processions. And there were plenty of artistic giants brandishing brushes and pens, including Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. "It was a joke of youth against experience," Benazzi said.

The restoration, unveiled this week here in the mountain town of Gubbio, comes at a time when Raphael is much in vogue. An exhibition of Raphaels from museum and private collections is attracting large crowds at the National Gallery in London. The exhibit is the biggest assemblage of his paintings ever mounted outside Italy. Now Benazzi and her researchers claim to have found one more.

Italy itself is like an unrestored artwork that, when pieces of earth are turned, old walls torn down, drawers opened and attics cleaned, produces hidden details of its vast cultural landscape. Scratching Italy's surface almost always produces something old and occasionally something magnificent.

In early October, workers repairing a museum in Siena broke through a 17th-century wall and discovered a 14th-century fresco behind it. In 2001, an art student inspecting a 17th-century fresco in Rome's medieval Ara Coeli church found under it a fresco that also dated from the 14th century.

A similar discovery was made in the 1990s at a Roman shrine known as the Scala Santa, the Holy Stairs. Art experts discovered that a 16th-century fresco depicting a pope, two saints and Jesus had been painted atop a 13th-century one, the earliest known in the city.

The Gubbio banner, which was carried at the head of processions by the Corpus Domini fraternity, hung in a niche in a corner of Santa Maria dei Servi church. It, too, had been painted over, probably in the 16th century.

In 2001, the local bishop ordered an inventory of diocese artworks with the aim of getting some restored. Restorers quickly discovered the painting beneath the painting. The original painting shows a crucified Jesus flanked on the left by St. Ubaldo, who is collecting Jesus's blood in a chalice, and on the right by St. Francis of Assisi, who is displaying the stigmata -- the marks of Jesus's wounds -- on his own hands. Three angels above Jesus hold a green cloak behind him.

The RV monogram stands for Raphael Urbinas, the Gubbio researchers concluded. Raphael hailed from the Umbrian town of Urbino, and V is the Latin version of the letter U. "Raphael was very precocious. He's signing a work as Raphael of Urbino. He considered himself already one of Urbino's master painters," Benazzi said.

The young man's notion of being on top of the art world did not last forever. He was called to Rome in 1508 to paint some chapels for Pope Julius II. Julius had already put Michelangelo to work on the Sistine Chapel. Raphael was awed by the muscular, free-flowing human figures with which Michelangelo was populating the ceiling. The experience opened Raphael's eyes to a more athletic and less geometric style of painting.

Massimiliano Bassetti, an art historian who specializes in medieval script, said this week that he is 98 percent certain that the monogram belongs to Raphael. The artist used the monogram, not a signature, Bassetti surmised, because "Raphael would not have been allowed to sign such a devotional object" with his full name.

Benazzi, in remarks at a news conference and in interviews, launched preemptive strikes on possible objections to her conclusions. She noted that Raphael, born Raffaello Santi, had inherited a painting workshop from his father at age 11. By his mid-teens, he would have felt fully in charge of the workshop. "Young Raphael was already the boss," she said.

She said that at this stage of his life, Raphael had not yet benefited from his apprenticeship with the Umbrian painter Perugino, who art historians say launched Raphael into greatness. From Perugino, Raphael learned the geometric composition and delicate painting of women with petite mouths that became a trademark of his madonnas.

Such refined characteristics are missing from the Gubbio banner. "It's not a masterpiece," Benazzi said. "But it changes what we know about the young Raphael and therefore has great historical importance."

Other experts are skeptical. James Beck, an art professor at Columbia University, called the monogram a "fluke." He said Raphael was working under senior artists at his father's studio and was unlikely to have received a commission to do a painting on his own. Given the lack of documentation and the decayed condition of the banner, the case "is still to be proven," he said by telephone. Beck has not seen the painting.

Tom Henry, co-curator of the National Gallery exhibit in London, said he has studied a dossier on the banner provided him by Benazzi and concluded that "a monogram on the mantle of a saint doesn't constitute a signature."

"We're talking about a 16-year-old artist. To push back into the 1490s is impossible, since there is little evidence that he was a full-fledged artist earlier than 1500," he continued.

Referring to a Raphael on display in London, "St. Nicholas of Tolentine," dated around 1501, Henry added: "Seventeen is precocious enough."

A 61/2-foot-tall linen banner found in central Italy depicts Jesus flanked by St. Ubaldo, left, and St. Francis of Assisi. It was once used in processions.