Tuesday, April 14, 2015
L IS FOR MARGHERITA LUTI
This will be sort of a one-off in my A to Z posts, because so little is known about its subject. The only facts we conclusively know about "La Fornarina" (the baker's daughter) are that she was the lover and muse of the painter Raffaelo Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520), renowned both then and now as Raphael. We don't even know the years of Luti's birth or death. Raphael's two most famous paintings of her are the one shown above, and this rather more intimate one:
Luti is nothing like my typical subject in this A to Z challenge; she was not accomplished (as far as we can tell) in her own right, and we only know of her today because she was a catalyst to Raphael's artistic output. And what an output it was!
Nonetheless, I'm including Luti because her story is so incredibly romantic that I couldn't resist. I first heard of her last summer when my family and I visited Rome, Luti's home city and the place where Raphael met her when he moved from Florence to live there for the last twelve years of his life.
Most of what we know about the lives of both Raphael and Luti comes from the writings of Giorgio Vasari, a contemporary (1511-1574) painter and writer who is known as the first art historian (he was also the first person to use the term "Renaissance," at least in print). In 1550, Vasari published his masterwork, LIVES OF THE MOST EXCELLENT PAINTERS, SCULPTORS, AND ARCHITECTS, chock-full of biographical information freely interspersed with gossip. In trying to write about Luti now, it's pretty much impossible to separate myth from fact, but the myths are so poignant that I'm not sure I'd even want to try.
Luti lived with her father, Francesco Luti, a baker from Siena, in the Via del Govorno Vecchio in the Trastevere district. The story is that Raphael, who lived nearby, first glimpsed her when she was bathing her feet in the Tiber River, and was instantly smitten by her looks, only to find as he got to know her that her mind was as beautiful as her body.
Everyone who knew Raphael, who died at age 37, concluded that he was a player, known for his frequent sexual encounters with a seemingly endless stream of women (Vasari is very snarky about this). But everyone also agrees that he was deeply in love with Margherita Luti.
According to Vasari, when Raphael was commissioned by the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi to paint Chigi's Roman villa, he "could not give his mind to his work" because he was pining for Luti. Chigi solved this problem by moving Luti into the villa with Raphael. I heard a very similar story from my family's official (and awesome) English-language Vatican tour guide, Max, regarding Raphael's residency in the Vatican palace while he was completing his paintings. According to Max, on Raphael's insistence, Luti was smuggled in to live there with him too! Who knows? If you read much about the exploits of some popes and cardinals back in the day, you might well conclude that stranger things have happened.
Vasari claims that Raphael's premature death (on Good Friday, and what might have been his 37th birthday) was brought on by a night of such wild sex with Luti that he contracted a "violent fever," which kept worsening until it killed him two weeks later. More recent scholars are pretty skeptical about this claim, and believe instead that he died of the cure - being repeatedly bled by leeches, as was the custom in those days - rather than the disease. What is known is that during those final two weeks of his life, Raphael was fully conscious and able to put his affairs in order. He dictated his will, and one of the provisions he made sure to include in it gave Luti sufficient income for the rest of her life.
Raphael had achieved rock-star status during his years in Rome, and pressure on him to marry a suitably wealthy and patrician woman was intense. Luti was a woman of the peasant class, and for Raphael to have married her publicly would have been out of the question. In 1514, he caved and became engaged to Maria Bibbiena, the niece of his friend and patron Cardinal Medici Bibbiena, but due to Raphael's successful machinations, the marriage never took place. Bibbiena died in 1520, and Raphael followed her soon after.
But maybe Raphael wasn't actually in a position to marry Bibbiena anyway. I've left my favorite part of this story for last here. Recent X-ray analysis of the portrait of Luti shown at the top of this post has revealed a square-cut ruby ring on the third finger of her left hand, which had been painted over and hidden for 500 years. That, as well as the model's costly pearl brooch (shown above in close-up), which she wore in both of the above portraits ("margherita" is Italian for "pearl") and, in the nude portrait, the ribbon on her arm bearing Raphael's name, all suggest that Raphael and Luti may have been secretly betrothed to each other, if not actually married.
Four months after Raphael's death, the Convent of San'Apollonia in Trastevere, Rome, registered the arrival of the "widow Margherita," daughter of a Siena baker.