Love and Passion in Rome

A giant poster of "La Fornarina" outside the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas

It is the most famous love story in the history of Rome. Star artist of the Renaissance with the beautiful baker girl. Raphael and the Fornarina.

He was young, handsome and an artistic genius. Brought to Rome from Northern Italy to serve the Pope, Raphael mixed with the rich and powerful. He enchanted the city with the grace and beauty of his painting and in sharp contrast to Michelangelo’s grouchiness, Raphael was a charming, affable person.

Raphael worked as an artist and lived as a Prince. He moved in the highest of circles, but he was swept away by Margherita, the baker’s daughter in the popular Trastevere neighborhood running along the Tiber river near the Vatican.

Margherita Luti was the daughter of Francesco Luti, the breadmaker (Fornaio) from Siena. She was known as the “Fornarina” – little bread-maker. Raphael was so smitten with the Fornarina that he was unable to finish his work for Rome’s richest banker, Agostino Chigi, at his Palazzo Farnesina in Trastevere. The temptation to slip away down the street to his lovely Fornarina was just too strong. According to the legend, Chigi found a practical solution, bringing Marghertia Luti to live in his Palazzo while Raphael continued his project.

In 1514 Raphael was engaged to marry Maria Bibbiena, the neice of Cardinal Medici Bibbiena, but never ended up marrying.  His mind was clearly occupied with “La Fornarina.”

Giorgio Vasari, Italy’s most famous art historian, described her as, “the woman who Raphael loved to his death.”

The most striking testimony to Raphael’s affair with the “Fornarina” is his painting of her, a rather provocative portrait of a nude woman veiled in a transparent cloth her hand gently holding her breast and her finger pointing to a bracelet wrapped around her upper arm with Raphael’s signature on it. (To be honest, in my ignorant, non-art historian viewpoint, I would take Raphael’s simple, seductive Fornarina any day over Leonardo Da Vinci’s stoic, stiff-upper-lip Mona Lisa—the Fornarina’s enigmatic smile is so much more bewitching). Behind the Fornarina is a myrtle bush, apparently a symbol of passion and eternal love.

Raphael's two paintings: "La Fornarina" or "Portrait of a Young Woman" next to "La Velata" or "The Woman with the Veil"

As with all good love stories, the story of Raphael and the Fornarina has a bitter, tragic end. After a night of passionate love-making, Raphael fell terribly ill. He died 15 days later. He did managed to write his will, taking care to leave enough for his beloved baker-girl.

Art historians debate whether or not an earlier painting by Raphael, La Velata (The Veiled Woman) might not also be “La Fornarina.” In my uneducated opinion it is perfectly obvious that “La Velata” is his beloved Margherita.

Raphael was buried not far from the AP office in Rome, his tomb placed in the ancient  Pantheon.  The pantheon was built by the Romans in 126 AD as a Temple to all Gods.  I guess during the Rennaissance, Raphael held almost God-like status and was believed worthy of a place in the Pantheon. Following his death “La Fornarina” is said to have taken refuge in the convent of the Sisters of Apollonia in Trastevere.

What I love about being in Rome, is that you have history and art all around you.  Raphael’s tomb is a short trot down the street from my office and all I have to do is hop on the tram and cross over to the other side of the Tiber river to enter the Trastevere neighborhood.

The other day my daughter and I took a walk around Trastevere and visited the very places where Raphael and the Fornarina carried on their passionate love story. We peeked inside the gate to the Villa Farnesina where Raphael painted for wealthy Roman banker Agostino Chigi. The Palazzo has fabulous gardens packed with lemon trees and we could imagine a paint-splattered Raphael slipping out of the Palazzo to go woo his mistress on a bench amidst the lemon trees.

We then passed through the Porta Settimiana – a thick archway in the wall to see the Fornarina’s Trastevere home. Now there is a restaurant there called called Romolo.

I asked the owners if we could visit their little back garden where Raphael and Margherita Luti (La Fornarina) passed romantic hours together. They were thrilled to show us the quaint garden and “La fornarina’s” famous window overlooking the street.


The Plaque outside the Romolo Restaurant and the Garden where Raphael met with La Fornarina. Photos by Trisha Thomas

I must admit I have a soft spot for this captivating baker’s girl who cast a spell over  one of the most legendary figures of the Renaissance.


The Italian composer Giancarlo Acquisti has spent ten years making “The Legend of Raphael and the Fornarina” into a musical to be shown in Rome. My husband Gustavo and I were invited to a preview performance and were enthralled by the talent of the cast, the enchanting scenery (Trastevere on stage), the fabulous music as the actors brought this famous love story to life. The artistic aspects of the show are complete, but Acquisiti and his director Marcello Sindici are still working on making the “Fornarina” muscial project into a permanent theater presence, a contemporary Broadway-style musical in Rome. I will update this blog soon with more on the musical.



17 thoughts on “Love and Passion in Rome”

  1. American Mamma

    I’m a sucker for a good Italian love story. You made my day with this one. But so tragic that the artist and the baker’s daughter could not be together in the end. I have my own tale of unrequited Italian love. American girl goes off to Italy for a month holiday with best friend a month before entering university…meets a Casanova-type based in the Appenino Mountain Range and can’t seem to forget him or that summer for the rest of her life, although she is happily married with children and living the American suburban dream. “Mr. Casanova” is now 55 and still unmarried, living the care-free, playboy lifestyle. Can you explain to my why there seems to be so many Italian men 40+ who still aren’t married and live at home with their mamma? There seems to be the marrying-kind of Italian man and the non-marrying-kind of Italian man. Please shed light or words of wisdom if you have any, Mozzarella Mamma. If you are at a loss for words, I’ll understand. It might just be a cultural phenomenon I don’t understand.

    1. American Mamma, thank you for your nice long comment. Of course I would be happy to explain why so many 40-something Italian men prefer to live at home with their Mamma than get married. Actually, I will do a complete blog post on the topic, but the answer is quite simple. Mamma buys the underwear and socks for their 40+ son, she cooks him a proper pasta lunch and dinner, iorns his shirts and frets endlessly over his health. My poor 40-something husband has a wife who never buys him socks or underwear and couldn’t really care less if he is wearing any or not. He has to put up with me being grouchy about him not helping with the cooking, cleaning or transporting all the kids around, and I certainly don’t fret about his health. I think my poor husband is dreaming of the good ol’ days back home with Mamma!!
      Once, after I was married to an Italian, someone said to me, “didn’t anyone ever tell you that Italians are the world’s best lovers and the world’s worst husbands” Perhaps that statement is a little unfair, but it sounds like you might have gotten a good deal.

    1. Adri — thanks as always for your comments. I am glad you found it interesting. I love the Fornarina tale.

  2. Thanks so much for this fascinating story… it’s truly going to color my next visit to rome! How romantic and interesting… I LOVE that you followed the story, visited the sites, photographed it and shared it with us!

  3. Italy is just chock full of stories like this one. Incredible that italians carry on these tales over hundreds of years and revere the places where occurred.

  4. I totally love art history and a good love story and hadn’t heard of this love. As a teen I read anything I could find on the renaissance no idea how I missed this. How sad, yet how inspiring that love can be found in the least likely places.
    ciao lisa

  5. Thank you for sharing this lovely story. One thing that I’ll share is what you are also pointing out so nicely – as an American my perspective on age and history is a bit different. I think in terms of 100s of year, but when I was an exchange student to Germany I quickly learned that there were things left over from the Roman times and that Europeans think in terms of 1000s of years of history. How nice that you and your children have this wonderful chance to enjoy such history!

    1. Susan, thank you for your comment and a great tip. I have never heard of La Bella Simonetta before. She definitely sounds worth a bit of research for a blog post. I am getting lots of great tips from blog readers. Another one told me about an artist named Artemisia Gentilleschi, who I am eager to know more about. But back to Botticelli. I went to an exhibit the other day in Rome on Fra Filippo, Filipino and Botticelli. Most of the females in the paintings were Madonnas with blond hair, blue eyes and very high foreheads –clearly the ideal beauty at that time. As I wandered through the exhibit I wondered if all these painters were hanging out with Nordic women or were there a lot of blonds in Italy at that time. (Raphael’s Fornarina and Caravaggio’s Madonna Di Loreto look more like real Italian women to me). Now you have answered my question– there was La Bella Simonetta in Florence!

  6. I can hardly wait! My husband and I will be in Rome in less than two weeks. Our first trip without the kiddies in 26 years. I love Italy but this will be our first trip to Rome. I am off to dig my “Birth of Venus” out of the library to re-read this evening. Wonderful post!

    1. Obviously there are so many things to see in Rome, but if you get a chance seeing “La Fornarina” at Palazzo Barberini is worth it, and you must take a walk around the Trastevere neighborhood!

    1. Well, I sure wouldn’t mind whizzing around Rome on the back of a motorino with Gregory Peck driving!!

  7. I don’t know how I missed this one when it was published, but it was a small photo at the end of your current post and I had to click on it. I have loved this story since the first time I saw the painting at the museum and ate at Romolo. Oh how I miss living in Rome, and being able to scoot from places like the Pantheon from our apartment in Trastevere. Your posts make me nostalgic (at least for the art and culture – politics not so much)

    1. Hi Linda, I am so pleased when someone enjoys an old post. The wonderful thing about blogging is that the material stays out there forever. I loved preparing the post on Raffaelo and the Fornarina– exploring all the location of their love story from the Vatican to Trastevere to the Pantheon. I agree with you, if you can spend your time enjoying beauty and culture, Rome is a fabulous city, when you have to start dealing with politics, it can get on your nerves. I won’t even get started on what has been happening this week except to stay that the upstart Five-Star Movement has been making brutal, sexist verbal attacks through twitter on the Speaker of Parliament, a talented woman named Laura Boldrini. I can’t stand it!

  8. “Tell me ye stones and give me O glorious palaces answer.
    Speak O ye streets but one word. Genius, art thou alive?
    Yes, here within thy sanctified walls there’s a soul in each object,
    ROMA eternal. For me, only, are all things yet mute.
    Who will then tell me in whispers and where must I find just the window
    Where one day she’ll be glimpsed: creature who’ll scorch me with love?
    Can’t I divine yet the paths through which over and over
    To her and from her I’ll go, squandering valuable time?
    Visiting churches and palaces, all of the ruins and the pillars,
    I, a responsible man, profit from making this trip.
    With my business accomplished, ah, then shall only one temple,
    AMOR’s temple alone, take the initiate in.
    Rome, thou art a whole world, it is true, and yet without love this
    World would not be the world, Rome would cease to be Rome…

    Happily now on classical soil I feel inspiration.
    Voices from present and past speak here evocatively.
    Heeding ancient advice, I leaf through the works of the Ancients
    With an assiduous hand. Daily the pleasure’s renewed.
    Throughout the night, in a different way, I’m kept busy by Cupid—
    If erudition is halved, rapture is doubled that way.
    Do then I not become wise when I trace with my eye her sweet bosom’s
    Form, and the line of her hips stroke with my hand? I acquire,
    As I reflect and compare, my first understanding of marble,
    See with an eye that feels, feel with a hand that sees.
    While my beloved, I grant it, deprives me of moments of daylight,
    She in the nighttime hours gives compensation in full.
    And we do more than just kiss; we prosecute reasoned discussions
    (Should she succumb to sleep, that gives me time for my thoughts).
    In her embrace—it’s by no means unusual—I’ve composed poems
    And the hexameter’s beat gently tapped out on her back,
    Fingertips counting in time with the sweet rhythmic breath of her slumber.
    Air from deep in her breast penetrates mine and there burns.
    Cupid, while stirring the flame in our lamp, no doubt thinks of those days when
    For the triumvirs he similar service performed…”

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