Italy’s Most Strangest Paintings: Raphael’s La Fornarina

You might believe that Leonardo da Vinci is hiding serious secrets, despite the ongoing debates about who the Mona Lisa actually was and Dan Brown’s “decoding of the Last Supper.” It’s not true! It is not! Art history requires some level of research. There are many works of art in Italy that are just as beautiful as they are mysterious.

Take La Fornarina by Raphael. This Renaissance portrait is not only sensual, but it also contains some serious surprises.

(By the by: This is the first of many posts about Italy’s most mysterious paintings, works of art. So stay tuned for more! ).

Here are the facts about La Fornarina which hangs at Palazzo Barberini, Rome. (An excellent copy is also available in Rome’s Galleria Borghese.

The portrait was probably completed in 1520, which is the year Raphael died. The work is Raphael’s. We also know what the work depicts: A beautiful young woman, mostly nude, looking at the viewer (and the artist) with a sweet, coy gaze.

The big mystery: Who are they?

The artist himself. Is he really like the subject of “La Fornarina?”

We can’t be certain. Art historians believe she was Raphael’s mistress, but there are clues. Here’s where Dan Brown would go insane–secret bride.

Raphael was quite a gentleman. One woman stole Raphael’s heart, it seems. Margherita Luti was nicknamed “la Fornarina” because she was the daughter of a local baker. Raphael couldn’t focus on the commissioned work for Agostino Chigi, so Chigi allowed her to move in with him.

Raphael was not the only reason that the subject photographed nude for Raphael. Raphael signed his initials on the left armband of the subject, which is the one that connects to the heart. Oder that her right hand rests gently over her heart.


Close-up of La Fornarina’s ring.

This could be la Fornarina. However, a greater mystery was discovered a few years back. After the painting was restored and cleaned, something unexpected turned up on the left hand of the girl: a wedding band.

Why was that a sign that the portrait’s identity is la Fornarina gave believers cause to gasp. Raphael was out with the baker’s girl, but he was also engaged to a cardinal’s niece. The woman he never married was not his. Some believe this could be why: He was secretly married to la Fornarina.

Given his engagement and high social standing, it would make sense that he would keep the marriage secret. It is also plausible that a student of him would rush to hide the ring in order to preserve the secret marriage for posterity. It is generally believed that the painting was found at Raphael’s studio upon his death and that Giulio Romano, his student, added the “finishing touches”, including a cover-up to the painting before it was sold.

Many art historians disagree. One theory is that the woman is not Raphael’s lover, but Francesca Ardeasca who was Agostini Chigi’s wife. This would explain the ring. It’s impossible to prove that Francesca is not represented in any other portrait.

Let us know what you think. Is the theory true or romantic myth? Let us know what you think in the comments. (And, if you’re looking for more information about Raphael and La Fornarina’s paintings in Rome, make sure to check out our Borghese gallery tour! ).