Raphael's La Fornarina

Raphael Sanzio, <i>La Fornarina,</i><br>National Gallery of Art at the Palazzo Barberini, RomeThe Palazzo Barberini in Rome, not far from the Spanish Steps, is known for a beautiful undulating staircase by Bernini, a dizzying trompe l’oeil ceiling by Piero da Cortona and a marvelous collection of Renaissance paintings. One of the museum’s signature works, Raphael’s La Fornarina (c. 1520), is now being exhibited in the United States for the first time. The half-nude, three-quarter-length young woman wears an armband on which is written Raphael Vrbinus (Raphael of Urbino), and according to legend the portrait depicts the artist’s mistress. When Raphael was decorating the Farnesina for the Chigi family, the story continues, he was so enamored of her that she had to be moved into an apartment in the Tiber villa. Certainly, this is a remarkably sensuous image for an artist proverbially associated with sweet-faced madonnas. Yet sexuality is mixed with a regal air. The placement of her hands—directing the eye to her breast and loins while seeming to conceal them—alludes to the Venus pudica of classical sculpture. And her enigmatic smile has led generations of viewers to compare her to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. There is nothing here of the casual dishabille of the studio model.

The American tour began at the Frick Collection in New York City, which published a fully illustrated booklet written by Dr. Claudio Strinati reviewing, for the first time in English, recent analysis and scholarship on the work. A special exhibition in 2000 at the Palazzo Barberini highlighted the results of x-radiographs, revealing quickly executed underdrawing consistent with Raphael’s sketches from life. These studies both reinforce the theory that the model was Raphael’s lover and quiet previous speculations about authorship (Raphael’s pupil Giulio Romano was proposed as an alternative). The best evidence, however, remains the work itself. On the level of painterliness, it is a tour de force. Note the flash of the dark eyes, the luminosity of the skin, the artfully arranged diaphanous drapery and the quick notation of the pendant jewel dangling from La Fornarina’s striped turban headdress (in a style made fashionable by the Mantuan duchess Isabella d’Este, in imitation of ancient Roman fashion). Recent cleaning has also revealed a tiny jeweled ring, not dissimilar to a wedding ring of the time, on the sitter’s left hand. Perhaps Raphael was thinking of the project he was designing for the loggia at the Chigi villa, a frescoed ceiling illustrating stories of Cupid and Psyche and culminating in their wedding feast on Mount Olympus. There has even been speculation that La Fornarina is related to the bride whose wedding Amor and Psyche commemorates. Raphael did not live to complete the cycle (the frescoes were painted mostly by Guilio Romano and others), but La Fornarina remains as one of his last and most fascinating masterpieces. Raphael was an astute public artist, a deft negotiator in securing commissions, as well as a consummate technician. La Fornarina is a private work, not even mentioned by Vasari, and it continues to intrigue us. “Raphael’s Fornarina” began its tour at the Frick Collection, on the Web at www.frick.org. It continues February 13-April 17, 2005, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, www.mfah.org. The final stop is the Indianapolis Museum of Art, May 6– June 26, 2005, on the Web at www.ima-art.org

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2005, Volume 22, Number 1