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.
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.
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.
NOTE TO BLOG READERS:
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.