My Daily Art Display today features an Italian lady, Margarita Luti. She became known as La Fornarina which in Italian means “the baker’s daughter”. She was the daughter of Francesco Luti, a local baker from Siena who worked in the Roman district of Santa Dorotea. The reason she became famous was not because of her father’s occupation but because she modelled for and was the mistress of the great Italian High Renaissance painter, Raphael Sanzio. It was well documented that Raphael Sanzio was a very passionate man and had many mistresses in his time. In the book, The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari, the biographer described the artist and how his love of women affected his work:
“…Raphael was a very amorous man who was fond of women and he was always quick to serve them. This was the reason why, as he continued to pursue his carnal delights, he was treated with too much consideration and acquiescence by his friends. When his dear friend Agostino Chigi commissioned him to paint the first loggia in his palace, Raphael could not really put his mind to his work because of his love for one of his mistresses; Agostino became so desperate over this that, through his own efforts and with the assistance of others, he worked things out in such a way that he finally managed to bring this woman of Raphael’s to come and stay with him on a constant basis in the section of the house where Raphael was working, and that was the reason why the work came to be finished…”
Although Margarita Luti is not actually named by Vasari her name does appear in scribbled notes on the original pages of the manuscript which would become his second edition of his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. The painting entitled La Fornarina, by Raphael hangs in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome and a further copy can be found in the Galleria Borghese, in Rome. The work was completed around 1520 when Raphael was thirty seven years of age. This was also the year in which on Good Friday, April 6th he died. Before us is a portrait of a beautiful young woman who is almost nude. Her skin is flawless as alabaster. Her cheeks are flushed and pink, She stares out to her left and smiles, presumably at the artist as he works on her portrait.
She is pictured with an oriental style hat on which is attached a large jewel Her breasts are bare. Her right arm crosses her body and her right hand pulls a diaphanous veil over her stomach and abdomen in a gesture which mirrors the posture of women as seen in classical sculptures such as the Venus pudica, apose that became the custom for the nude Aphrodite figures in the Late Classical period. It is a very suggestive pose and I am not sure whether she is attempting to cover her breast or in fact she is turning it slightly towards us and her lover, Raphael. Or could it be that her right hand is pressed against her heart as she looks at Raphael as a gesture of her love for him? Her left hand rests between her thighs, the fingers splayed out and outlined by the deep, bloody-red of her discarded gown. On her left arm there is a narrow leather band on which is the name of the artist – RAPHAEL URBINAS. On the third finger of her left hand she appears to be wearing a ruby wedding band. The presence of a ring was only discovered in the early part of the twenty-first century when the painting underwent some X-Ray analysis during restoration and cleaning work.
The fact that Raphael painted her with a wedding ring would have been very controversial at the time for six years earlier, in 1514; he had become engaged to marry. He had been pressured by Cardinal Medici Bibbiena’s to marry one of his nieces, a lady named Maria Bibbiena. Raphael did not want to refuse the Cardinal, but managed to postpone the matter, saying that he would prefer to wait three or four years before entering into marriage. However after stringing along the cardinal and his niece for four years, Raphael had to agree to the marriage, but managed to keep putting off the date for the big occasion with a string of excuses. So why had this engagement lasted six years without it ever ending in marriage? There are a number of theories. One is that Raphael had already married Margarita Luti in secret years earlier and therefore could not marry Maria Bibbiena. Another possible reason is that his engagement to Maria had brought him additional status. He was made a “Groom of the Chamber”, a papal valet, which in itself afforded him status at court and more importantly an additional income. He would not want to jeopardise that. He was also made a knight of the Papal Order of the Golden Spur, an honour which was also bestowed on the artists Titian and Vasari. All such honours would have been lost if he had had to admit to being already married. So why was the ring on the sitter’s finger not discovered immediately? It was not just the ring, which was painted out, as the restoration work also uncovered that the myrtle branches we see filling the background of the painting and which are thought to be symbolic of love and marriage were not always there. The X-Ray analysis of the painting show that originally there had been a landscape background, similar to that seen in da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
The reason for the over-painting is that it is thought that the work which was found in Raphael’s studio when he died had “finishing touches,” added, including a cover-up of the Margarita Luti’s ring finger by his student, Giulio Romano, who then went on to sell the painting.
Raphael Sanzio died in April 1520 possibly even on April 6th, the day of his 37th birthday. There are numerous speculative explanations as to the cause of his death. Probably the most bizarre was put forward by Vasari when he postulated that Raphael died on his 37th birthday after a wild night of celebratory sex with Margarita causing him to lapse into a fever and when a doctor arrived Raphael was too embarrassed to admit to what had brought on this feverish state and then had been given the wrong medicine by the doctor which went on to kill him. Other historians, who also disagree of the date of his death, have put his demise down to working too closely with arsenic and lead based paints or overwork or heart failure.
And so I leave you with one of the world’s greatest artists and his portrait of the love of his life, but is it? Is this a portrait of the little baker’s girl who became Raphael’s lover? Some would disagree. Some art historians, including Doctor Claudio Strinati, superintendent of the National Museums of Rome, now believe that the way in which Raphael’s has depicted the lady is too refined to have been just done for his own pleasure and in fact, due to the quality of the work, was a commission for a wealthy and influential patron and that patron could have been his friend Agostino Chigi. According to this theory, the woman in the painting was not Margarita Luti but Chigi’s long-time mistress, and later his wife, Francesca Ardeasca. We know that Chigi had commissioned Raphael to work at his new “palace”, the Villa Farnesina, and the two had become friends so much so that when the lovelorn Raphael’s mind was so distracted having been parted from his beloved Margarita whilst working on the commission, Chigi had supplied a room in his palace for Margarita so that he could better focus on the work in hand.
So is this enchanting portrait of the dark-eyed woman we see before us today Raphael’s paramour or his patron’s wife? Is this a painting carried out for love or for money? We will probably never know for sure as there are no other portraits of Chigi’s wife, Francesca, and therefore no possibility to compare likenesses. Maybe this doubt adds to the mystification of the portrait and I will let you make up your own minds.
Having extolled the beauty of some other women in featured paintings in early blogs I look at this lady and question her purported beauty but as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” I will again allow you to decide and leave you with the comments made by French writer, Gustave Flaubert who wrote about La Fornarina in his satirical work entitled Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues (Dictionary of Received Ideas):
“…Fornarina. C’était une belle femme; inutile d’en savoir plus long…”
(Fornarina. She was a beautiful woman. That is all you need to know)