Raphael’s La Gravida (1505-6)

La Gravida. The Pregnant Woman. Like so many portraits by great masters, especially female portraits, Raphael's sitter is famously unknown. For good reason. She did not, I believe, exist.

Raphael spent a great deal of time in Tuscany when still young studying its art. Leonardo was there too from 1500 to 1506 and the influence he exerted on the Umbrian has long been recognized. It is not surprising then that Raphael's La Gravida adopts the pose of the Mona Lisa because he painted it while both he and Leonardo were in Florence and the Mona Lisa, which took many years to finish, was already inspiring other artists. Thus a brief re-cap of the Mona Lisa is necessary.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Raphael, La Gravida (1505-6) Oil on panel. Palazzo Pitti, Florence.

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In 1959 an art historian/doctor noted that the Mona Lisa (image inverted) had physical signs of pregnancy including swelling in her hands.1 Although he thought the sitter was actually pregnant, I believe Leonardo used his knowledge of gestation to depict the feminine creative faculty in his own mind which was always pregnant. Then, in unknowing support, a scientist demonstrated that the smiling woman has the exact proportions of Leonardo's face as seen in a self-portrait.2 That helped me see that Lisa is seated like an artist looking into a mirror, her body turned to paint her "self-portrait", the theoretical panel for which would have been perpendicular to the mirror and to one side, just out of our view. The painting, like so many others, is a mirror and Leonardo's lady is a reflection of his mind, object and subject united. One hand lies over an arm, touching it, as if to say she is painting it. The straight contour of her finger's shadow suggests that her hand is not even resting on the crumpled sleeve but on the flat painting itself. (See how Rembrandt used the same method.)

Meanwhile La Gravida, seated like the Mona Lisa, is Raphael's variation on Leonardo's masterpiece. Her inversion from the source suggests his knowledge of the (unseen) mirror. Her finger is also extended, almost pointing, a common but little known gesture in art to signify that it is "painting" (read more). She is pregnant too and wears the gold chain, a traditional symbol for the honor due to great masters from kings and princes. Titian, Rubens and Van Dyck all painted themselves with these gifts as did Rembrandt who never received one (read more).  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Leonardo's Mona Lisa (1502-1517), inverted
Bottom: Raphael's La Gravida (1505-6)

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La Gravida (left) is also the spitting image of Raphael in his own self-portrait (right). No-one has noted this before because they imagine a real sitter. Once you accept that all great portraits represent the artist and that many of them are simply "creations" without a sitter, the resemblances between the artist and the model become obvious.

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Raphael's La Gravida (1505-6)
R: Detail of Rapahel's Self-portrait (c.1500-02), inverted. Black chalk. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

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This helps explain Raphael's many signatures within paintings. Rona Goffen wrote a paper called "Raphael's Designer Labels" to recount all the inventive ways in which he included his name within an image. However she mostly saw signatures in which the name is written out as on the band around La Fornarina's arm (bottom). There are many more disguised examples, still unseen, that I must publish. Here, for example (top), is a black decorative item, perhaps a bow, on La Gravida's arm. It forms an R for Raphael. Even Goffen noted in her article that Raphael's letters are often disguised as decoration.3

Others have mistaken Raphael's signature on a female figure as a sign of authorship, of ownership or of his ideal of beauty.4 What it really signifies is that the woman is a self-representation of his androgynous mind. La Gravida is "Raphael".

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Raphael's La Gravida (1505-6)
Bottom: Detail of Raphael's La Fornarina (1518-20)

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He also included rings (bottom) to resemble the direction of her eyes as seen in a mirror, one larger than the other just like her pupils. By making them "eyes" Raphael conveys that his vision and craft (hand) work as one. He also differentiated between her actual eyes (top), one clear and outward-looking, the other darker, larger and clouded to represent insight. Those two forms of perception have been depicted metaphorically in thousands of artworks over the centuries (read more). 

La Gravida, largely ignored as a portrait of an unknown woman, can now be seen for what it is: the artist's pregnant mind.

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Note: For how this painting may have inspired a later artist, see Renoir's Dance in the Country (1883)
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Two details of Raphael's La Gravida, the lower one inverted and rotated.
 

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Notes:

1. Kenneth D. Keele, “The Genesis of Mona Lisa”, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 14, April 1959, pp. 136-59

2. Lillian Schwartz, “The Art Historian’s Computer”, Scientific American 272, April 1995, pp. 106-11

3. Rona Goffen, "Raphael's Designer Labels: From the Virgin Mary to La Fornarina", Artibus et Historiae 24, No. 48, 2003, pp. 123-42, esp. p.129.

4. Gandelman interpreted the signature on La Fornarina as a sign of ownership; Woods-Marsden as Raphael's ideal of beauty. The latter obviously had a different interpretation for the signatures on the neckline of his Virgin Marys, believing they "clearly express his veneration [for the Virgin] while asserting the intimacy of his relationship." Goffen, writing on prominent signatures in Italian Renaissance art in general, described them as signs of authorship and like a trademark. She also believed that their prominence somehow implies praise for the patron's discernment in choosing the artist and cites Creighton Gilbert's belief that Renaissance patrons must have composed (!) or authorized these insertions beforehand and, thus, that they "cannot be strictly considered as signatures." Claude Gandelman, “The Semiotic of Signatures in Painting: A Peircian Analysis” in American Journal of Semiotics 3, No. 3, 1985, p.96 ; Joanna Woods-Marsden, "Cindy Sherman's Reworking of Raphael's La Fornarina and Caravaggio's Bacchus", Source: Notes in the History of Art, 28, No. 3 (Spring 2009), p. 29; Rona Goffen, "Signatures: Inscribing Identity in Italian Renaissance Art", Viator 32, 2001, p. 304.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 24 Sep 2013. © 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.