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!
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.
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
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:
has the summer sunlight shone
on the fair form, the quaint costume,
Yet, nameless still, she sits, unknown,
A lady in her youthful bloom.
for this! No shadows cast
Their blight upon her perfect lot,
Whate’er her future or her past
In this bright monument matters not.
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!
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.
Museum of Art