November 30, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Body heat

By |2023-08-02T19:02:26+02:00November 15th, 2015|Features Archive, History 102|
A detail from Raphael's Fornarina, painted between 1518-1520.

n 1520, the portrait of a porcelain beauty was discovered in the studio of Renaissance darling Raphael after his untimely death at the age of 37. “La Fornarina” (the little baker girl) is reputed to be a painting of the artist’s final mistress, Margarita Luti, the daughter of Sienese baker. A tantalizing source of fantastic speculation about Raphael’s sex life, “La Fornarina” has acquired the status of an ever-evolving fantasy, pondered in prose and paint by the likes of Ingres, Nietzsche, and Picasso.

Revered during his lifetime and admired for centuries afterward as the quintessential High Renaissance man, Raphael was the favorite painter of powerful patrons and mighty popes. A prodigy who quickly surpassed the talents of his master, Pietro Perugino, Raphael was a virtuoso, an exceptional painter and draughtsman who delved into architecture and trained a school of some 50 artists in his own style. Beloved by those in his orbit, the elegant and courtly charmer moved effortlessly among his elite patrons, having been reared in the court of Urbino where his father had been a painter for the duke.

Raphael’s singular shortcoming, it appears, was his failure to leave behind a meaningful written account of his personal life. Doing so might have salvaged his biography from the lusty conjecture surrounding his allegedly hefty sexual appetite.

Rumors about Raphael’s sexual prowess began swirling in the mid-16th-century, when artist and historian Giorgio Vasari published his “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.” Raphael, Vasari writes, was “a very amorous person, delighting much in women and ever ready to serve them.” As proof, Vasari offered Raphael’s despondency over being separated from “his” Margarita while working impossible hours at the Rome villa of the wealthy Sienese banker Agostino Chigi. To placate his unfocused, lovelorn artist, Chigi allegedly moved Margarita into the villa, giving Raphael full and regular access to his lover. Vasari maintains that Raphael so overindulged on Margarita that he made himself sick, eventually contracting a fever brought on by too much sex.

Although it’s far more probable that Raphael worked rather than fornicated himself to death, he was a bit of a gallant during his lifetime. Betrothed for years to a woman named Maria Bibbiena, the niece of a powerful Vatican cardinal, Raphael continually postponed their marriage, presumably because of his affairs with other woman, as well as his reluctance to make a pledge to someone he did not truly love.

The unrequited Maria may be interred next to Raphael at the Pantheon in Rome, but it is La Fornarina to whom Raphael is wedded in the popular imagination. An eminent artist like Raphael never could have married such a girl without ruining his career and reputation. Yet La Fornarina brims with clues that appear to support an unproven yet intriguing theory: Agostino Chigi secretly arranged for the couple to be married.

Nude female models were difficult to come by during the cinquecento, but it’s clear from the intimate nature of La Fornarina that the sitter was extremely comfortable with her portraitist. Naked from the waist up and seductively cradling her right breast, the woman wears a blue armband inscribed with Raphael’s name — Raphael of Urbino — in gold lettering. A pearl, exactly the sort of pricey bauble worn by women on their wedding day at the time, dangles delicately from the turban on her head. The name Margarita means “pearl” in Latin, and the jewel also appears in another Raphael masterpiece, “La Velata,” another alleged painting of his mistress. Foliage of myrtle and quince — symbols of love, fidelity and fecundity — fill the painting’s background, and a 2005 restoration of “La Fornarina” revealed what is believed to be a wedding ring on the woman’s left hand. While it has been suggested that “La Fornarina” is really a portrait of Chigi’s wife, the resemblance to “La Velata” remains, and it’s doubtful that Chigi would have given approval for the confidential sitting.

When Raphael’s dutiful student Giulio Romano found the painting in Raphael’s studio after his death, he promptly disguised the nuptial clues and sold it. Raphael’s school was still frescoing the last of the Raphael rooms at the Vatican, and the painting would have scandalized the master’s legacy and jeopardized the school’s commission. Four months after Raphael’s death, a “widow Margarita” registered as the “daughter of a Siena baker” entered the convent of Sant’Apollonia in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome.

A host of history’s finest minds have probed Raphael’s near-mythical romance. The French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres painted five different versions of the lovers between 1813 and 1865. In the final painting, Margarita nestles herself on Raphael’s lap while he contemplates an unfinished version of “La Fornarina” — a vision of an artist torn between his lover and his craft. No such dilemma existed for Raphael in the mind of Picasso, whose 1968 group of etchings known as the “347 Series” include 25 pornographic images of the couple. In one, Michelangelo peeks out from beneath a bed as Raphael ravages his lover while clutching a paintbrush and palette in his hands. For Picasso, then nearly 90, sex and art were equivalent passions, one in the same.

It was a concept previously presented by German philosopher Nietzsche in his notion of “will to power,”or the act of unbridled striving. “Without a certain overheating of the sexual system,” he wrote, “no Raphael could be conceivable.”

About the Author:

Jennifer Theriault's "History 102" column ran from 2010 through 2015.