La Fornarina

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Portrait of a Young Woman
Italian: La fornarina
La Fornarina by Raffaello.jpg
MediumOil on wood
Dimensions85 cm × 60 cm (33 in × 24 in)
LocationGalleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

The Portrait of a Young Woman (also known as La fornarina) is a painting by the Italian High Renaissance master Raphael, made between 1518 and 1519. It is in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica in Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

It is probable that the picture was in the painter's studio at his death in 1520, and that it was modified and then sold by his assistant Giulio Romano.[1]

The woman is traditionally identified with the fornarina (baker) Margherita Luti, Raphael's Roman lover who refused to marry him, though this has been questioned.[2] Alternatively, it can be argued that this is not a portrait of a specific woman, but rather Raphael's interpretation of the belle donne theme and a depiction of a courtesan.[3] Still, another interpretation of who the model is identifies the figure as a witch.[4]


Description of Painting[edit]

The painting depicts a nude woman wearing a thin veil to cover her lower abdomen and is seen half covering her left breast. She wears a blue and yellow turban over her dark hair; a thicker red cloth covers her legs and genital region. The figure appears healthy with smooth skin, full proportions and faint pink tint in her cheeks. Her eyes are looking towards the left, and she wears a small possibly amused smile. La Fornarina is also wearing an armband engraved with the painter's signature, "Raphael Vrbinas." [5]

Technical Analysis[edit]

X-ray analyses have shown that in the background was originally a Leonardesque-style landscape in place of the myrtle bush, which was sacred to Venus, goddess of love and passion.[6] An overpainted ruby ring on the sitter's third left finger has caused speculation on whether there might have been a secret marriage with Raphael.[7]

Identity of the Figure[edit]

Belle Donne Theme[edit]

Joanna Woods-Marsden has chosen to view the painting through the belle donne theme, describing it as a representation of idealistic beauty. With this interpretation, it is more likely that a viewer could assume that this is not Raphael’s lover, but instead a prostitute or simply his personal representation of beauty. With this chosen theme, the figure should be described simply as a nude woman (prostitute) or a “half Venus, nude.” Both descriptions imply a sense of beauty; if she were an unknown nude prostitute, she was beautiful enough to catch Raphael’s eye and inspire him to create an entire portrait of her. If she is a “half Venus, nude,” she is a representation of the most beautiful goddess to ever exist; she is the embodiment of love, beauty, desire and ultimately, sex. During the Renaissance, beauty was equated to nakedness and the nude, for if a woman was naked she was captivating and sexually exciting to the artist and ultimately, the viewer. She is posed in a way that is reminiscent of the Venus pudica pose,[8] enticing the viewer to look upon her naked body and imagine what she is hiding behind her thin drape. The Venus pudica pose is inspired by ancient sculptures of Venus in which the goddess is nude, but keeps her breasts and genitalia covered with either a hand or thin drape.[9] Raphael makes the woman more risqué by enlarging her breasts, hardening her nipples, and giving her a possible flirty yet shy glance towards the viewer.[8]

Raphael's Lover[edit]

Another interpretation of the woman's identity assumes her to be Raphael's lover named Margherita; the figure's father was a baker and thus earned her the nickname of La Fornarina. According to Giorgio Vasari. Margherita supposedly refused to marry Raphael every time he asked.[10] She was his muse [11][10] and appeared as the subject in many of his paintings. She is shown wearing items associated with wealth and her assumed romantic relations to the painter. Her golden armband signed Raphael Vrbinas, and the appearance of a ring on her left, fourth finger can be seen as Raphael’s indication of La Fornarina as his. However, she did end up leaving him. When she left him, it is said that Raphael fell into despair and could no longer paint, so Pope Leo and one of Raphael’s most prominent patrons, Agostino Chigi, went looking for Fornarina in order to get rid of her. Pope Leo X believed that Raphael was just infatuated with the woman and not actually in love, so if they were rid of her, Raphael would return to his art once he heard she was gone. The Pope offered her money to disappear and she accepted; later, Raphael asked Chigi for help, promising to focus on his painting while he looked. Chigi returned without the woman and a fake letter saying that she would return to Raphael once the Chigi portrait was finished. Experts are divided on the veracity of this story.[12]

Breast Cancer[edit]

Positioned a quarter of the way away from the viewer, it has been suggested that the right hand over the left breast reveals a cancerous breast tumor.[13] Even with the positioning, one can identify differences between her two breasts. The right breast is perceived as a fully formed and proportional breast, accompanied by healthy-looking skin and an unremarkable nipple upon a normal-looking areola. The viewer is given a better look at the left breast due to her positioning and thus can identify more problematic aspects that might not appear in the right breast. With the side view of the left breast, a viewer can see that it is enlarged and deformed by an indentation on the lower rim of the breast; the indentation begins where a possible mass ends. The mass extends from the woman’s armpit medially along the lower half of her breast, and is seen to reach its apex at the spot just above her right index finger. Further evidence to a possible cancer is the sickly-blue hue to the skin of the left breast in relation to the healthy, pink undertones of the right one; the coloring is most prominent on the indentation and suspected tumor, but extends slightly above and below this area to the rest of the breast. Another possible indication of a cancerous tumor is that her left arm is swollen as a result of a lymph node in her armpit being enlarged. Enlarged lymph nodes and swelling are possible signs of a cancer diagnosis once metastasized.[13]

La Fornarina as a Witch[edit]

Muriel Segal's book Painted Ladies provides the theory that La Fornarina represents a witch. According to the author, during the time period that this painting was made, “the baker’s daughter” did not indicate that a woman's father was in fact a baker, but a term used for a malevolent goddess. The goddess, referenced in Shakespeare’s Ophelia character in the play Hamlet, is said to have been a cannibal owl-goddess.[14] The owl-goddess is not specified in the play, but supposedly originates from hell; during this time, witches were seen as servants of Satan who practiced satanic magic. Segal states that La Fornarina was more fond of black cats than children, which at the time was not common because the main goal of most was to get married and procreate. Segal's interpretation differs from the belle donne theme in that she believes the figure herself is a witch and not a general depiction of witches. Jacob Burckhardt analyzes witch craft as neither good or evil,[15] the women who practiced magic did so to support themselves by providing potions and spells for her patrons' desires. [16] The physical features of Fornarina are completely unlike other painted women of the time; she was more healthy-looking with ample body parts (full lips, large breasts, wide hips, etc). Segal says the reason for this was because Raphael hated the wraith-like bodies that were the subjects of other artist’s paintings.[15]

Sex Work[edit]

Another theory is that Fornarina was in fact a sex worker and not Raphael’s lover. However, Raphael’s “signature” on the figure’s armband could imply that he did have love for the figure, and possibly felt ownership of the woman. In the painting, the figure is half nude and is wearing a suggestive smile, almost in a “come hither” look. The placement of her slightly open righthand on her left breast shows her nipple and a good amount of her breast; she seems to be teasing the viewer in order to entice them to come closer. The softer facial expression gives an air of familiarity between the subject and the viewer; she is not blank and staring into the eyes of the viewer like portraits of wealthy women, but rather is looking towards the viewer with a half smile like a passing acquaintance. The subject is wearing a yellow scarf across her head that during the Renaissance implied that the woman was a sex worker. Yellow scarves were a requirement for “dishonest women” to wear, these women were ones who willingly took off their clothing for artists which resulted in inspiration for much of the nude art pieces during the Renaissance. If a woman was wearing a yellow scarf across her head, she could show her naked body without prosecution. Courtesans were widely used in European culture beginning during the Renaissance; their existence and their depiction was a way for people to explore sexual relationships based on the ideals of classical writings on the subject.[17]

See also[edit]

  • La velata, another Raphael painting of the same sitter


  1. ^ Galleria Borghese Archived 2012-05-19 at the Wayback Machine.
  2. ^ Espinel, Carlos Hugo (2002). "The portrait of breast cancer and Raphael's La Fornarina". The Lancet. 360: 2061–2063 – via ScienceDirect.
  3. ^ Woods-Marsden, Joanna (2009). "Cindy Sherman's Reworking of Raphael's "Fornarina" and Caravaggio's "Bacchus"". Source: Notes in the History of Art. 28: 29 – via JSTOR.
  4. ^ Segal, Muriel (1972). Painted Ladies: Models of the Great Artists. New York: Stein and Day. pp. 36–42. ISBN 9780812814729.
  5. ^ Espinel, Carlos Hugo (2002). "The portrait of breast cancer and Raphael's La Fornarina". The Lancet. 360: 2061–2063 – via ScienceDirect.
  6. ^ Galleria Borghese Archived 2012-05-19 at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ Ross King: Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling (Penguin 2003), p. 309
  8. ^ a b Woods-Marsden, Joanna (2009). "Cindy Sherman's Reworking of Raphael's "Fornarina" and Caravaggio's "Bacchus"". Source: Notes in the History of Art. 28: 29 – via JSTOR.
  9. ^ Goffen, Rona (1997). Titian's "Venus of Urbino". The United States of America: The Press Syndicate Of The University of Cambridge. pp. 63–85. ISBN 0-521-44448-9.
  10. ^ a b Segal, Muriel (1972). Painted Ladies: Models of the Great Artists. New York: Stein and Day. pp. 36–42. ISBN 9780812814729.
  11. ^ Espinel, Carlos Hugo (2002). "The portrait of breast cancer and Raphael's La Fornarina". The Lancet. 360: 2061–2063 – via ScienceDirect.
  12. ^ Fineman, Mia (2005-02-03). "Raphael's other woman". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 2020-11-16.
  13. ^ a b Espinel, Carlos Hugo (2002). "The portrait of breast cancer and Raphael's La Fornarina". The Lancet. 360: 2061–2063 – via ScienceDirect.
  14. ^ Tracy, Robert (1966). "The Owl and the Baker's Daughter: A Note on Hamlet IV.v. 42-43". Shakespeare Quarterly. 17: 83–86 – via JSTOR.
  15. ^ a b Segal, Muriel (1972). Painted Ladies: Models of the Great Artists. New York: Stein and Day. pp. 36–42. ISBN 9780812814729.
  16. ^ Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. S.I.: Pub One Info. pp. 524–525. ISBN 2-8199-3742-X.
  17. ^ Burke, Jill (June 5, 2019). "Raphael's Lover, Sex Work and Cross-Dressing in Renaissance Rome: Art Pickings 1". Rensearch Wordpress. Retrieved October 29, 2020.

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