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La Donna Velata

La Donna Velata
Raphael Santi
The woman with a veil
La Donna Velata

c. 1516
Oil on canvas
82 by 61 cm (32 by 24 inches)

Galleria Palatina, Florence, Italy

La Donna Velata may not be Raphael's most famous painting to the layman, but it's considered to be in par with Leonardo's Mona Lisa. Margherita Luti (la Donna Velata) is the same model as his painting, "La Fornarina"
La Velata
by Kathleen Durham

Raphael was known in the 1500s as he is today for the beauty of the madonnas he painted. He often spoke of an ideal conception of beauty that he used in his earlier madonnas. While in Florence he perfected ‘sfumato’, that soft smoky transition between colors that was developed by Leonardo. In another nod to Leonardo, Raphael began to do his portraits in half-length, which shows the sitter’s hands, instead of the old bust-length style. Once in Rome his portraits (and madonnas) reached a new level. They were no longer paintings of what people looked like.

They were paintings that showed the inner essence of the sitter. Notable among these was the portrait of his friend Baldassare Castiglione, the painting that so impressed Rembrandt. The quiet direct gaze of the courtier, the soft colors and transitions, and the amazing fabrics – all worked together to set a new standard for portraiture.

The same year Raphael painted La Velata. Almost five hundred years later we can feel her warm gaze, and marvel at the perfectly modelled face and neck, the colors of her skin. We see her exactly as Raphael did. What amazing care he gave to her clothing (!) Julia Addison, a Victorian writer, felt that La Velata is holding her loose bodice with one hand, as if it were being removed.


The texture of the flimsy gathered chemisette contrasts with the crisp damask of the slashed sleeve with its gold lining and trim, and with the long sheer veil. So much tender detail!

So who is she? Most people believe she is Raphael’s long-time lover, his true love, Margherita Luti, also known as the ‘Fornarina’,( the baker’s daughter.). Raphael was engaged for years to Maria Bibbiena, a niece of a Cardinal, but this portrait is not of Maria. There is no doubt that Raphael was fond of women. Giorgio Vasari, his first biographer, felt that Raphael’s early death came from an excess of romantic activity!
Raphael always put off his marriage to Maria. There is speculation that because of her uncle Cardinal Bibbiena, it would not have been wise politically for Raphael to break off the engagement. At any rate, Maria died in 1520 shortly before Raphael himself. In his will he specified that he should be buried with Maria at the Pantheon, but he also left an amount of money to Margherita. Several months after Raphael’s death, a woman who called herself ‘ Margherita Luti, widow’, entered the convent of S. Appollonia.

Many critics believe that it is obvious from the depth of feeling in the portrait of La Velata that she was indeed Raphael’s true love. A German scholar, Oskar Fischel, called it a “commission of his (Raphael’s) own, in the midst of the great frescoes and orders for altarpieces.......a love-prompted improvisation”. Some say that since La Velata wears a veil as married Roman women did, that she could even be the new wife of his patron Agostino Chigi. Others say that he painted his love with a veil because they were married!

Whoever she was, Raphael used her face for the Sistine Madonna and for the Madonna of the Chair. In another portrait, La Fornarina, Raphael painted a woman who resembles La Velata. But here she wears nothing but a flimsy veil covering the lower half of her body. On her arm is a band with his name on it, and in her hair is a jeweled pearl ornament which appears to be the same jewel that La Velata wears. Recent cleaning has revealed a ring on her finger, setting off another round of speculation about the possibility that Raphael was secretly married to Margherita. It appears that no one will ever know the truth about La Velata’s identity. But does it matter? A Victorian poet, William Allen Butler, wrote a long poem about La Incognita (The Unknown One), another title often used then for La Velata. Here are the first few lines:

“Long has the summer sunlight shone
on the fair form, the quaint costume,
Yet, nameless still, she sits, unknown,
A lady in her youthful bloom.

Fairer for this! No shadows cast
Their blight upon her perfect lot,
Whate’er her future or her past
In this bright monument matters not

La Velata remains a favorite at the art-filled Pitti Palace. It is such a privilege for us to be able to see her here, all by herself.
Raphael’s influence has continued through the years. We know, of course, that he influenced Rembrandt. The ongoing delicious gossip about La Velata/La Fornarina inspired Ingres to do a painting showing Margherita Luti on Raphael’s lap in front of an easel with the portrait of La Fornarina. Raphael was hugely popular in the Victorian era – much more so than his contemporaries, Leonardo and Michelangelo. The Victorians idolized him -Whittier, Browning, Butler, and Longfellow wrote poems about him, and engravings of Raphael’s paintings were everywhere. Manet used figures taken directly from an engraving after Raphael for his famous Dejeuner. And Picasso revived the mystery by drawing Raphael and his lover, with the Pope watching, and Michelangelo under the bed!

For a large part of the Twentieth Century Raphael was marginalized, probably as a result of way too many bad reproductions of his work, along with renewed interest in Michelangelo and Leonardo. But in recent years there has been renewed scholarly respect and popular interest in his work. A drawing of Raphael’s just sold at auction for the highest price ever paid for a work on paper.
Nevada Museum of Art

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