(b. 1483, Urbino, d. 1520, Roma)

La Fornarina (detail)

Oil on wood
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

Art history also has its chronique scandaleuse. Raphael was a painter who had seemed to succeed at everything from his childhood on. At the zenith of his career in Rome he was to be married, but he came up with various excuses to walk out of the planned union. Instead, he was said to have had a steady lover and to have led a colourful love-life on the side. With unproven anecdotes like these, Giorgio Vasari conjured up enduring speculations as to who this lover might have been. Later interpreters liked to think it might have been Margherita Luti, who was also said to have been Raphael's model. She was the daughter of a Roman baker, hence "La Fornarina". None of the female portraits by Raphael gave rise to fantasies in the way that this one did. But there is no historical probability that this painting depicts Raphael's lover.

An attractive young woman is sitting "topless" for a painting. She is not looking at the beholder, but has her head turned slightly to one side, as though she were watching something. Her hair is elaborately done up in a sort of turban, from which a pearl is hanging.