I’ve always liked the idea of going to a museum to look at a single painting. I hate that bleary-eyed, sore-footed feeling you get when you stumble out of a super-mega-blockbuster exhibition—and find that you can’t describe a single work in detail. This season, a traveling one-picture exhibition of Raphael’s famous painting La Fornarina provides a perfect pretext for a Sunday afternoon drive-by. The painting, glowing from a recent cleaning, is making stops at the Frick Collection in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
At the Frick, La Fornarina was displayed in an oval rotunda, surrounded by portraits done by Gainsborough * and Van Dyck of 18th-century English aristocrats who seem to glare at the half-naked Italian wench in their midst. I’d be jealous, too: The lady is a stone cold fox. Her skin is flawless and alabaster, her cheeks flushed with pink, her eyes shiny like cue balls.
Aside from a fashionable silk turban, all she wears is jewelry: a tiny ring on her left hand and a blue armband that bears the artist’s name—Raphael of Urbino—in gold letters. She pulls a diaphanous veil over her belly with a gesture derived from classical sculptures of the Venus pudica (modest Venus), suggestively cupping her left breast. Her other hand rests between her legs, the fingers splayed and outlined in a deep, bloody red. She gazes coyly to one side, presumably at the artist himself; a smile plays at the corners of her lips.
Who is this mysterious, dark-eyed beauty? Nobody knows for sure. For centuries, people have speculated that the sitter was Raphael’s last lover, tentatively identified as Margherita Luti, the daughter of a baker from Siena—hence the nickname, la fornarina, the little baker girl. Or was she, as some recent scholarship suggests, the new bride of Raphael’s richest and most prominent patron, the pope’s banker, Agostino Chigi? Did Raphael paint one of the most captivating portraits of the high Renaissance for love or for money?
Most of what we know about Raphael’s love life comes from Vasari’s vivid biographical account in Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550-68). Raphael was, Vasari tells us, “a very amorous person, delighting much in women and ever ready to serve them,” but never married. According to Vasari, toward the end of his life, when he was trying to complete the frescos in Agostino Chigi’s villa in Rome, Raphael grew so obsessed by his girlfriend, Margherita Luti, that he couldn’t focus on his work, so he had her installed in one of the villa’s rooms where he could visit her whenever he felt the urge. Not long after this, Raphael’s rock-starlike lifestyle caught up with him, and he died at age 37 from a fever brought on by too much sex. If we believe Vasari’s story, Luti was the ultimate femme fatale.
The rumor that La Fornarina is a portrait of Raphael’s mistress began in the Renaissance, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that the story really captured the popular imagination. Ingres’ imaginary double portrait, Raphael and La Fornarina (1814), which shows the dark-eyed lady perched on the artist’s lap, helped turn Raphael’s painting into a cult icon. The scenario also piqued Picasso’s interest; in 1968 he made a series of drawings of Raphael and his lover caught in flagrante by the pope, sometimes with Raphael’s rival, Michelangelo, peeking out from under the bed.
So, is this romantic back-story fact or fiction? The experts are divided. When La Fornarina was shown in a special exhibition in Rome in 2000, the curators presented X-rays of the painting, which reveal a quickly executed underdrawing, most likely done from life. Since nude models were hard to come by in 16th-century Italy, they argued, Raphael must have been on very intimate terms with the sitter, hence La Fornarina was Raphael’s lover, Margherita Luti.
However, in a booklet that accompanies the current show, Claudio Strinati, superintendent of Rome’s museums, lays out an alternate hypothesis. The execution of La Fornarina is too refined to have been done for the artist’s private pleasure, he argues. A work of this quality must have been commissioned by a powerful patron, and for Strinati all signs point to Agostino Chigi, who married his longtime mistress, Francesca Ardeasca, in a famous ceremony conducted by the pope in 1519.
Strinati suggests that the gold ring on La Fornarina’sleft hand, revealed by a recent cleaning, may have been a wedding ring; the expensive bauble dangling from her turban was something a rich lady might wear on her wedding day; the dark foliage behind her is probably myrtle and quince, symbols of love, fidelity, and fecundity. Hence, La Fornarina is Francesca Ardeasca. And the armband bearing Raphael’s name? Strinati interprets it as the artist’s “homage” to his patron—though if I had been Chigi, I’d have kept an eye on those two.
Unfortunately, there are no existing portraits of Chigi’s bride to confirm Strinati’s theory. But Raphael did paint another portrait of a woman who has been identified as his last lover. In this painting, known as La Velata (the veiled woman), the lady is clothed, but to my eye, her resemblance to La Fornarina is as clear as day. Just look at the chin and the curve of the cheek, the dark, almond-shaped eyes, the way the mouth curls up at the corners.
Yet to Strinati, the two women are as different as … well, to put it bluntly, a virgin and a whore. “While La Velata is a modest figure, depicted delicately, La Fornarina is the portrait of a bold, audacious woman,” he writes. “It seems strange that two such different portrayals might be of the same person.” It seems strange to me that Strinati can’t see that this is the same person, clothed and demure in one picture, naked and flirty in another. Although Strinati’s explanation smacks of scholarly sobriety, in this case, the more alluring love story may actually be true.