“La Fornarina” by Raphael.  The Story of Love and Secret Marriage 

Fornarina by Raphael

In his later years, Raphael created the portrait of a woman (1519).  She clearly played a key role in the life of the Master.  She has a bracelet with the inscription “Raphael of Urbino” on her forearm. Looks like a looped bird. There is no doubt, who she belongs to. 

It turned out, her relationship with Raphael was not limited to love affair.  When the painting was cleaned and restored in 1999, a ring turned up on the woman’s left hand that was covered upThe ring finger of her left hand. Obviously it’s an engagement ring. In addition, a woman’s hair is decorated with a large pearl. These brooches could only be worn by married women. 

Has Raphael been married to this woman?  Well, then why didn’t  Raphael and his contemporaries mention this marriage?  The only question is who covered up the ring and why?  Let’s try to figure it out. 

 Ingres. Raphael and Fornarina.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Raphael and Fornarina. 1814. Harvard University Museum.

La Donna Velata and Fornarina 

Vasari, a contemporary of Raphael, wrote that once Raphael portrayed a woman of breathtaking beauty.  And that it was the woman Raphael loved for the rest of his lifeIt’s about La Donna Velata. 

Raphael. Lady with a veil.
Raphael. Lady with a veil. 1516. Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy.

Notice that the woman‘s hair has the same decoration as in the first portrait.  It was created 2-3 years earlier.  La Donna Velata is translated from Italian as “The woman with the veil”. Such capes were worn by married Roman women. 

So, if the same woman is in both portraits, then the secret wedding took place before La Donna Velata was painted, in 1516. 

Women are completely different from each other. This probably reflects the fact that Raphael did not have time to finish painting the face in the portrait of his naked wife.  After his sudden death, the “finishing touches”, including a cover-up, were added by his student and friend, Giulio Pippi (Romano), who then sold the painting.  Why would he do that? 

Cardinal Bibbiena and Raphael 

We can also find the answer in biography of Raphael written by Vasari.  He noted that the powerful Cardinal Bibbiena offered to marry his niece to Raphael. 

Raphael did not want to refuse the Cardinal.  However, he managed to postpone the matter, saying that he would prefer to wait three or four years before entering into marriage.  Perhaps he hoped that during this time the situation would sort itself out. 

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. The girl never got married.  She died before the death of Raphael. 

 Ingres. The betrothal of Raphael and the niece of Cardinal Bibbien.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. The betrothal of Raphael and the niece of Cardinal Bibbien. 1813-1814. Walter Museum of Art, Baltimore, USA.

When Raphael died, his students were given the responsibility of completing all orders.   The decoration of several halls in the Vatican had not been completed. It would’ve been pretty scandalous if the Cardinal knew about the secret marriage.  Raphael’s reputation would be seriously undermined.  His disciples would lose all commissions from the Vatican. 

Giulio Romano couldn’t let that happen.  He did everything so that no one would know about his friend’s marriage. A ring was covered upHe sold the painting of supposedly unnamed female model. 

Fornarina’s fate after Raphael’s death 

What happened to Raphael’s beloved woman?  Vasari noted that Raphael, realizing that he was dying, sent his beloved away from his household and gave an order to make her rich for the rest of her life. 

But by the end of the 19th century, the historian Antonio Valeri discovered in the library a list of nuns from one of the Roman monasteries for fallen women.  It listed a nun, who entered the monastery in August 1520 (4 months after Raphael’s death) and identified herself as a “Margarita Luti, Raphael’s widow”. So the real name of the girl from the portrait became known.  And one more fact indicates that Raphael was married to her. 

Pavel MuratovItalian art connoisseur, was sure that she was exiled to a monastery forcibly.  Although Raphael fully provided for her, after his death she was already unprotected.  No one needed her to disclose her relationship with Raphael.  He was buried as a groom of the Cardinal’s niece. 

Raphael (Giulio Romano?). Portrait of a young woman (presumably a portrait of Fornarina)
Raphael (Giulio Romano?). Portrait of a young woman (presumably a portrait of Fornarina). 1520. Museum of Fine Arts, Strasbourg, France.

The legends of Fornarina and Raphael 

The portrait is called “La Fornarina. This is exactly what Raphael’s beloved has to be called.  However, he himself never called her that.  This name was coined in the 18th century.  In Italian at the time, it was a vulgar, rude designation for a mistress.  The bread rises during baking. In the same way, a clever mistress has aimpact on a man, like aoven on bread. 

However, later a legend was born that she was the daughter of a baker (the root of the word “Fornarina” means “baker” in Italian).  However, I think that Margarita Luti had nothing to do with bakers. 

Actually, in the 18-19 centuries, a lot of legends were invented about Fornarina and Raphael.  With the light hand of the Italian writer Conolly (The Life of Raphael, 1790), these inventions began to be taken as real stories from the life of the Master.  Although in the middle of the 19th century it was proven that many of them are unreliable.  The saddest fact is that these facts are still taken at face value on most Internet resources. 

Fornarina was said to be a depraved courtesan.  She destroyed Raphael, literally draining his strength with her sexual insatiability.  In creating this legend, Conolly relied on Vasari’s words.  He wrote that Raphael had much capacity for love and once gave too much energy to his love affair. As a result, he became ill and weak.  

However, Conolly didn’t take into account that during Raphael’s time and Vasari’s time, people seriously believed that frequent sexual activity leads to depletion of the body.  Now medicine has already disproved this. 

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Death of Raphael 

I think Raphael was weak from overwork.  He had been overwhelmed by the massive workload.  Every rich man in Italy would get him to paint a portrait of Madonna or his own portrait.  The Vatican commissioned  to decorate several halls.  In addition, he was made chief architect of St. Peter’s Cathedral.  He was responsible for the excavations in Rome.  Add to this the need to lead an active social life: dinners, gatherings of Humanists. 

In a letter to his friend Castiglione, Raphael writes that he was put in charge of St. Peter’s Basilica by the Pope.  He thinks that it was too much. He wondered whether his shoulders can bear such a weight?  Whether he will flame out like Icarus? 

Unfortunately, he got burnt.  Extremely exhausted from work, one day he felt himself failing in health.  A medical mistake finished the job. He bled, finally they have weakened Master’s organismHe died on his birthday 6th April 1520. 

The date of Margarita Luti’s death is unknown. Maria Bibbiena, to whom Raphael was publicly engaged, is buried next to him, in the Pantheon of Vatican. 

Fornarina inspires other artists 

Giulio Romano (the one who covered up the ring) was Raphael’s favorite student.  He worked very skillfully in the style of “a la Raphael”. So after a short while, no surprise he created his own FornarinaThat was another girl (the real Fornarina was in the monastery at the time). 

Giulio Pippi (Romano). The woman behind the toilet
Giulio Pippi (Romano). The woman behind the toilet. 1520-30. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts A.S. Pushkin, Moscow.

By the way, “Lady at her toilet” has long been regarded as the work of Raphael.  It is unknown if Giulio Romano meant to pass it off as his teacher’s work.  Or one of its owners was behind it.  The authorship of Giulio Romano was established only on the second half of the 19th century. 

More recently, Romano’s style would change. He will gravitate towards mannerism and eccentric erotic plots. There won’t be much of Raphael in his works. 

Woks of Romano
Giulio Pippi (Romano). Left: Five-breasted mermaid. 1525. Royal Collection of Art, London. Right: The Lord of the Rivers fresco. 1526-1534. Palazzo Te, Mantua, Italy.

The outstanding French artist of the 19th century Ingres was inspired by the legends of Raphael and Fornarina. He painted several works with this couple. His famous Grande Odalisque” was also inspired by La Fornarina. 

 Ingres. Big Odalisque.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Big Odalisque. 1814. Louvre, Paris.

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*Main illustration: Raphael. Fornarina. 1518-19. Palazzo Barberini, Rome, Italy.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons.

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