Raphael’s love life has been a source of fascination since his untimely death, from the sixteenth-century biographer Giorgio Vasari to my own coauthored novel The Sidewalk Artist. While Raphael was undoubtedly engaged to a cardinal’s daughter, Maria Bibbiena, he never married her and many have speculated that the great love of his life was La Fornarina, the Baker’s Daughter, a young and beautiful woman named Margarita Luti.
The rumors began with the painter Vasari, who in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects from 1568 asserted that Raphael died young at 37 from a fever brought on by too much lovemaking:
“[P]ursuing his amours in secret, Raffaello continued to divert himself beyond measure with the pleasures of love; whence it happened that, having on one occasion indulged in more than his usual excess, he returned to his house in a violent fever. The physicians, therefore, believing that he had overheated himself, and receiving from him no confession of the excess of which he had been guilty, imprudently bled him, insomuch that he was weakened and felt himself sinking; for he was in need rather of restoratives. Thereupon he made his will: and first, like a good Christian, he sent his mistress out of the house, leaving her the means to live honourably.”
Some believe that this mistress was La Fornarina, clearly the subject one of his most sensual paintings. Raphael executed another painting of the same woman, La Donna Velata (The Veiled Woman), more modest but opulently clothed this time and still incredibly beautiful. This second painting of a more respectable woman has led some art historians to theorize that the model was actually the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi’s mistress, whom he married in 1519. But no other painting exists of Chigi’s lover, so we will never know.
In 2001, after extensive x-ray analysis, other scholars insist that La Fornarina and Raphael were actually secretly married or at least engaged. Their study concluded that the subject wore a ruby ring on the third finger of her left hand – but someone, possibly Raphael himself or his student Giulio Romano in the aftermath of his master’s death – painted over it. This article explains the symbols in the painting that point to a possible clandestine marriage and why it was covered up: “It is hard to overstate Raphael’s status in Rome. He was a superstar. The distance separating them was like that which today would separate George Clooney and his cleaner.”
Whoever this raven-haired beauty was, she and Raphael certainly inspired others. For instance, Picasso did a series of sketches based on Raphael and La Fornarina. And Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres can be thanked for helping to perpetuate the myth of the muse inspiring the artist.
Whether he was secretly married to a poor woman (“[f]our months after the artist’s death in 1520, the convent of Sant’Apollonia in Rome’s Trastevere quarter registered the arrival of ‘widow Margherita,’ daughter of a Siena baker”) or publicly engaged to a cardinal’s daughter who is buried beside him in the Pantheon, it is clear that when he died on his 37th birthday, April 6, 1519, Raphael left behind a city in mourning, his friends bereft, the pope distraught, and a world still hungry for his artistic mastery five centuries later.
At least we know now that many of the shows scheduled about Raphael in Italy in the upcoming year will include major Raphaels that are permanently displayed in France. France and Italy have finally worked out a mutually agreeable sharing agreement regarding their Renaissance masters.
Both the National Gallery in London, UK and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, USA have both announced Raphael exhibitions to mark the 500th anniversary of his death. Additionally, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum will be refurbishing the gallery that holds their Raphael cartoons, reopening in time to coincide with the National Gallery’s exhibition that will begin on October 3, 2020.
For a comprehensive list of known upcoming Raphael exhibitions, visit my updated Raphael@500 page.
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BEST ROADSIDE SIGN/PLAQUE:
I recently had the pleasure to attend the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand at the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada. After the performance, we walked around this charming town not far from Niagara Falls, where I stumbled across a statue of the festival’s namesake, George Bernard Shaw. Here’s one of my favourite quotes from him: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”