Raphael’s La Donna Velata (c.1516)

Raphael's La Donna Velata is one of those great female portraits whose identity has long been the focus of research. Her name, though, will never be discovered because she is always a figment of the male artist's imagination, here a transformation of Raphael into the female symbolism of his mind, fertile and pregnant. That's why such "women" so often look pregnant too though Donna Velata is an exception. Nevertheless, the folds of her dress have an erotic connotation as strong as a Georgia O'Keefe lily.1

Many have seen facial resemblance between her and other women in Raphael's works, including several Virgins and even his other, later "mistress", La Fornarina. Yet for two decades this hypothetical woman does not age which is why, having seen resemblance, some fail to mention it.2

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Captions for image(s) above:

Raphael, La Donna Velata or Woman with a Veil (c.1516) Oil on canvas. Pitti Palace, Florence.

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Yet no-one has ever noted that she looks like Raphael's self-portrait as a youth, as they all do. Compare his eyes and eyebrows and the shape of his nose to La Donna Velata's (top).

Their mouths are strikingly similar too, not only in the shape of their lips but in the rythym of the labial fissure, the line between them (center & below). Note how, to the right of centre, the wave in each pair has a slight uneveness and individualized shape. It is not a generic mouth but a specific one.

The belief that great portraits represent real people has been so widely believed that viewers then and now read into paintings age-old tropes taken on faith. EPPH's research on portraiture makes that abundantly clear. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top L: Detail of Raphael's Donna Velata
Top R: Raphael, Detail of Self-portrait (c.1500-02)
Middle: Detail and diagram of Raphael's Donna Velata
Bottom: Detail and diagram of Raphael's Self-portrait

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The Donna Velata, like Leonardo's Mona Lisa ( top right) on which Raphael based her pose, sits like an artist painting a self-portrait. Ignore her fancy clothes, of course. Her torso faces her "easel" (just out-of-view to the left) while her head turns to check her features in an imaginary mirror, the very canvas we see. That is why all three portraits by Raphael at left adopt a similar pose with their "painting" hand near the edge in the lower left corner.4 The artist working on a self-portrait as seen in the mirror is commonly used as the underlying setting in art and portraiture.3 It symbolizes his search for self-knowledge because the implied viewer is not you but the artist. There is though a further implication which is even more important: you can think like the artist too, your minds at one.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top L: Raphael, La Donna Velata (c.1516)
Top R: Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (c. 1503-7)
Bottom L: Raphael, La Fornarina (1518-20)
Bottom R: Raphael, La Muta (1507-8)
 

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Raphael stamped the mysterious woman with his initial R disguised as a gold-tipped tie (left), just as he did in a ribbon with La Gravida and in her whole figure in the Sistine Madonna. He similarly inscribed his name on the armband of La Fornarina.5 

Although I have demonstrated that La Donna Velata represents Raphael painting while looking inwards, that is not all to the picture by any means. The perfection of her head represents the artist's fully-realized Self, sitting as calm and composed as a saint. She is veiled because truth, like profound meaning, always is. Yet the image also suggests  that this painted head emerged out of the erotic confusion of the artist's brain represented in the twisting fabric below. That, though, an important subject, is a story for another time..... Stay tuned.






 

Captions for image(s) above:

Top L & R: Detail and diagram of Raphael's La Donna Velata
Below: Raphael's La Donna Velata

Click image to enlarge.

Notes:

1. The right hand on the left breast is also said to imply "the nourishing quality" of both La Donna Velata and La Fornarina and thus support the claim that "the women in both paintings were erotic objects for Raphael." Laurie Schneider, "Raphael's Personality", Source: Notes in the History of Art 3, Winter 1984, p.10.

2. The facial features of the Donna Velata have been seen in the Sistine Madonna (1512), the Madonna della Sedia (1513-14), the Madonna of the Fish (1512-14), the Foligno Madonna (1511), The Coronation of the Virgin (c.1503) and even Raphael's "other woman", La Fornarina (1518-20). Rudolf Wittkower and Margot Wittkower, Born under Saturn (New York: W. W. Norton) 1963, p.155; Konrad Oberhuber, Raphael: The Paintings (Munich: Prestel) 1999, p. 199; James Beck, Raphael (New York) 1976, p. 145; Frederick Hartt, "A Drawing of the Fornarina as the Madonna", Marsyas suppl. II: Essays in Honor of Walter Friedländer (New York: Institute of Fine Arts, New York University) 1965, pp. 90-1. It is worth noting that the woman in Pierre Bonnard's 20th-century paintings, always said to represent his wife, does not age either over many decades.

3. There are dozens of paintings on EPPH, including Leonardo's Mona Lisa and Velazquez's Las Meninas, in which the explanation reveals the surface of the image to be a mirror. See examples under the theme, Mirrors.

4. See Abrahams, "Pointing at the Edge" (2012).

5. The presence of Raphael's name on the armband of La Fornarina is conventionally said to represent his "proprietary attitude" towards her. That smacks of jealousy and slavery and is out of keeping with both the mood of the portrait and what we know of Raphael's character. It is more likely an explanation born from despair: the inability to explain it.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 30 Apr 2014. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.