Raphael’s Renaissance Beauty: The Mysterious, Erotic La Fornarina

One of the wonderful things about La Fornarina (circa 1520), a painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael (1483-1520) currently

One of the wonderful things about La Fornarina (circa 1520), a painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael (1483-1520) currently on display at the Frick Collection, is listening to the remarks it elicits from viewers. The fact that it’s the sole subject of a painting exhibition-and it’s not a big painting at that, measuring round about two by three feet-means that it’s hard not to listen to (or participate in) conversations when you’re looking at the piece.

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Not a few comments you’re likely to hear will center on the intimate nature of La Fornarina, which means “little baker girl.” A seated, half-length nude portrait, the title subject is seen displaying her left breast in her right hand; the left hand rests in the cleft of a red cloth on her lap, the splay of its fingers offering a fairly blatant suggestion of sexual possibility. A transparent veil covers her belly. The eyes do not meet those of the viewer and are forever fixed on a point to our right. (Who La Fornarina might be looking at is a question that can’t help but come to mind.) The only part of the painting that does acknowledge us is the left nipple, which points directly out of the canvas-an odd fillip to an image that otherwise couches its eroticism in classical trappings.

“A meager attempt at modesty” is how a visitor from London described the painting. A pair of Upper East Side matrons, resplendent (if politically incorrect) in their furs, spoke of the painting in terms that would’ve had a sailor blushing. Not every comment was made in response to the picture’s erotic component. Many people scooted back and forth in front of the canvas, as if their eyes couldn’t believe the meticulousness of its execution or, for that matter, the creature such meticulousness had brought to life. One gallery-goer, having the stunned look of someone who had undergone a revelation, turned to me and exclaimed: “You know what? A painting can hold so much more than a photograph.” As someone who worries that the art of painting has been lost to a generation weaned on virtual reality and mass media, it was all I could do to stop from kissing him.

“Enigmatic” is the adjective of choice in describing La Fornarina. Like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa or Vermeer’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring, Raphael’s portrait coolly elides any attempt to unravel its mysteries. Words are hapless things when confronted by a masterpiece of this stature; metaphor is beggared. Forget, for a moment, the question of who is La Fornarina looking at; try, instead, coming to terms with the variety of emotions her looking encompasses. The demeanor depicted is a beguiling, all-but- impenetrable mix of skepticism and love, tenderness, admonition and reticence. The entirety of the woman’s being is wrapped up in the intensity of that gaze. The picture’s sexual blandishments pall when compared to its psychological complexity and pull.

Human nature being what it is, we are nonetheless curious about the identity of La Fornarina, or what her relationship with Raphael might have been. The story could be a juicy one. After all, much has been made of Raphael’s libido. In his seminal art-historical text Lives of the Artists, the 16th-century writer Giorgio Vasari makes mention of Raphael’s “pursuit of … carnal pleasures”: He “was a very amorous person, delighting much in women, and ever ready to serve them.” A contemporaneous writer, Simone Fornari de Reggio, believed that Raphael’s death at the age of 37 was directly attributable to his being oversexed.

Is La Fornarina a portrait of the artist’s mistress? Late in his life, Raphael became enamored of a young woman, almost to the detriment of his professional career. Agostino Chigi, the artist’s friend and patron, became so frustrated with Raphael’s inattention to a requested commission (so great was the painter’s devotion to his mistress) that he supplied a room in his palace for the woman so that Raphael could better focus on the on-site work. The relationship was, according to Vasari, infinitely more than a fly-by-night affair. When he realized that he was dying, Raphael “made his will; and first, like a good Christian, he sent his mistress out of the house, leaving her the means to live honorably.” It’s not only a juicy story, but a romantic one as well.

Or maybe not. In the brochure accompanying the exhibition, Dr. Claudio Strinati, superintendent of the National Museums of Rome, lays out in compelling and vivid detail the detective work done on behalf of La Fornarina. His conclusion? The “exquisite lady” is no paramour of Raphael, but Francesca Ardeasca, the wife of Agostino Chigi. The painting was ( sigh) only a commission.

Dr. Strinati isn’t 100 percent sure. He admits that “no other portrait of Francesca exists, and we cannot, therefore, prove this identification definitively.” Having done all that legwork, Dr. Strinati doesn’t seem too broken up over failing to solve definitively the puzzle of Raphael’s painting; you get the sense that he’s just happy it’s there to look at. Before the painting returns to its regular home in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, New Yorkers should avail themselves of La Fornarina and be happy, too.

Raphael’s La Fornarina is at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, until Jan. 30.

Raphael’s Renaissance Beauty: The Mysterious, Erotic La Fornarina