Raphael’s La Fornarina (1518-20)
In 1586 an art theorist wondered why the most excellent artists paint portraits "with better style and more perfection" but usually "with less of a likeness.”1 It is a truth generally ignored in the literature because it conflicts with conventional perception. If you think a portrait is a likeness, that is all you will see. However, as revealed for the first time in the Portraiture theme, artists often fuse their own facial features with those of their sitters to represent themselves. For a true artist, likeness is not the principal purpose of a portrait. This is often most obvious in portraits of their "wives" and "lovers." Not only are they the type of model least likely to complain about their likeness but, as companions, they are strongly linked to the master as his feminine double. (Most, of course, were female.) Together, artist and spouse, convey both androgyny and potential conception, thereby representing in visual metaphor the current state of the artist's mind. See examples like Courbet and his mistress or Egon Schiele with a lover. Now let's consider Raphael and his supposed mistress.
La Fornarina is said to be a portrait of Raphael’s mistress, the daughter of a baker. That is probably a complete myth dreamt up to explain the painting. Many biographical stories of great masters are made up and this portrait, an intriguing image because she is nude, beautiful and with Raphael's name on her arm, almost demands a story.
It is, however, more likely that Raphael’s purpose in La Fornarina was similar to Leonardo’s in the Mona Lisa painted a decade earlier. In it Leonardo presents his creative mind in a feminine persona, pregnant and fertile (read more). Kenneth Keele, a doctor and art scholar, presented the evidence for the Mona Lisa's pregnancy in the late 1950's.2 A similar possibility exists in La Fornarina, that Raphael has presented his creative mind as conceiving a new idea. It is a visual metaphor.
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First of all, no-one has noted that Raphael's La Fornarina resembles himself. Features from two of his self-portraits appear in her face: the central parting, the line of the nose, the shape of his lips plumped out, the same chin. The portrait at far left was even painted the same year in which he began La Fornarina. How could they not be linked?
Her pose is heavily dependent on the Mona Lisa. And just as Mona Lisa represents the feminine creative faculty in Leonardo’s mind so does La Fornarina in Raphael's. Her partial nudity and the hand on her groin both suggest that procreation is his subject. Besides, both are seated like an artist, their torso facing their easel at the side of the mirror into which they look. Their left arms (actually, right) cross their torsos to suggest that they are brush-arms painting a "self-portrait" on an easel to the left. What we see is the mirror, a symbolic reflection of the artist's mind.
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In support, La Fornarina wears a turban which, though elaborate here, was commonly used in artist's studios to keep paint off hair. (Read more) Raphael signed his name on her armband too just as Michelangelo inscribed the Virgin's strap in the Vatican Pieta. These are not just signatures; their placement proclaims the artist's identity with the figure.3 Like the Mona Lisa, La Fornarina may never have been a real person. Instead she is most probably a fictional construction illustrating the self-reflective and fertile nature of mankind's creative faculty. She is both artist and model, providing yet further evidence that every painter paints himself and that likeness in great portraiture, questioned even in the Renaissance, is a myth.
More Works by Raphael
How even the young Raphael depicted the divinity of the artist's mind
Even simple sketches can be pregnant with meaning
Original Publication Date on EPPH: 18 Apr 2011. © 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.