Raphael and the Portrait of a Young Woman (La Fornarina): the great beauty
There is a scene in Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film, The Great Beauty, in which the main character is able to gain access to some of the most beautiful buildings in Rome at night, thanks to the help of a friend. One of these buildings is Palazzo Barberini, and, in a dream-like scene, the main character walks in front of Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Woman (La Fornarina), glancing at it with an enigmatic smile. This was certainly not a random choice by Sorrentino to include this painting in a film whose main theme is beauty.
When looking at Raphael’s various masterpieces, what strikes you is their beauty and proportion, the equilibrium between the figures on the canvas and the rhythmic modulation of colors, his remarkable ability to organize form in space and to make the whole piece seem solemn and composed. Ultimately, what emerges from his works is their ease, simplicity and immediacy, but particularly their gracefulness and beauty. Raphael’s gracefulness emanates from his efforts to conceal artifice, but at the same time, it is his innate talent that permits him to convey this gracefulness in his work. However, this gracefulness is more than just a gift, it is also the result of time-consuming and tenacious work. Not even Raphael was exempt from this fact. For all of his prodigious talent, he also had to dedicate himself to studying the masters, particularly Leonardo and Michelangelo, elaborating on them, borrowing their techniques until he was able to create his own personal and innovative art.
Friends and women: they constitute the most hidden part of the Raphael’s artistic development. His relationships with women were more hidden than those with his friends, but are evident in the exceptional quality of the paintings that portray them.
Let’s start with Woman with a Veil (La Donna Velata). As often happens when the identity of a subject in unknown, many theories have sprung up over time to fill in the information gap, some truly bizarre. The most famous is that the woman is Raphael’s lover, the same lover who is portrayed in Portrait of a Young Woman (La Fornarina), another renowned work by the master. She is the woman for whom the painter refused marriage with Maria, the niece of one of the most powerful men of that time, Cardinal Bibbiena.
Elegantly but simply dressed, with her head covered by a veil, indicating a married woman with children, the Woman with a Veil represents the archetype of the Renaissance wife.
She is much different from the feminine model depicted in Portrait of a Young Woman. When the painting was discovered in the artist’s studio after his death in 1520, the effect was explosive. The fact that Raphael had held on to such a work, that he had hidden it but had signed it so blatantly, was evidence of his attachment to, and passion for, both the painting and the woman. By signing his name on her arm, the artist was announcing to all that the woman was his, in every way. It represents the sensual side that was lacking in Woman with a Veil; Portrait of a Young Woman clearly depicts a mistress, not a wife.
This work represents Raphael’s frontal assault on idealized beauty, in which he also eroticized painting. His skill in accomplishing this is proof of his genius. If you look carefully at the face, you can see that the nose is too large and sticks out too far, that the lips become larger in the center of the mouth, taking away their expressivity. Compared to the perfect ideal beauty of Woman with a Veil, the lady in Portrait of a Young Woman has an imperfect face, real, not ideal, but still capable of attracting attention. Raphael added sensuality to the work by using a typical device of flirtation, the veil that reveals as it hides. Furthermore, the veil is not covering the shoulders or chest, as one would expect, but the belly, which, oddly enough, is the most powerful erogenous zone, according to the Song of Songs.
“The curves of your sides are like jewels/The work of the hands of an artist/Your navel is like a round goblet/that is never without blended wine.”
Hence, Portrait of a Young Woman touches a very intimate chord and represents the relationship between sexual desire and beauty.
Naturally, a work of this type became legendary, and was the subject of analysis and research for artists who studied the works of the great master from Urbino. Many copies and lithographs were made, and, in the case of the Madonna and Child by Giulio Romano, student of Raphael, the Portrait of a Young Woman was reformulated in a religious theme. But it is the carnal nature of this work that has fascinated artists over time. Several centuries later, Pablo Picasso, at 87 years of age, became interested in the great paintings of the past and revisited them using themes of eroticism and sensuality. Some of the many etchings produced in this period demonstrate the sensual nature of Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Woman as observed by famous people such as Michelangelo, who Picasso placed in the role of voyeur.
Fittingly, Portrait of a Young Woman was Raphael’s last work. And perhaps this painting helps us to better understand a painter that has always seemed “easy”, but in reality, lived his life in a structured manner and was capable of transforming complexity into simplicity and beauty. An artist who was ambitious, bold, proud, who knew how to take advantage of the opportunities that were presented to him. To appreciate just how important he was, it is sufficient to look his funeral. His coffin was laid out in the center of the Sistine Chapel, as was done for popes, under the frescoes that had recently been completed by Michelangelo.
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica (National Gallery of Ancient Art) in Palazzo Barberini
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