As blockbuster Raphael exhibition opens, did lust for his mistress really lead to his death at 37?

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Raphael was one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance — and he died from having too much sex. Well, that was the story put about by Giorgio Vasari, the 16th-century art historian.

Vasari told of Raphael’s ‘pursuit of… carnal pleasures’, adding that he ‘was a very amorous person, delighting much in women, and ever ready to serve them’.

He said Raphael died in 1520 aged just 37, thanks to some unwise bloodletting prescribed for a fever, brought on by Raphael’s ‘more than usual [sexual] excess’.

Sex doesn’t normally bring on a fever — but still, it is true that Raphael was a vigorous lover, with a long-suffering fiancee and a mistress.

When he was painting his sublime frescoes in the Villa Farnesina, on the banks of the Tiber in Rome, he ached for his stunning mistress Margherita Luti, known as La Fornarina, ‘the Baker’s Daughter’.

Now Raphael’s greatest works, including his highly charged portrait of La Fornarina, are to go on show in a major new exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

Raphael’s greatest works, including his highly charged portrait of La Fornarina (pictured), are to go on show in a major new exhibition at the National Gallery in London

Raphael’s greatest works, including his highly charged portrait of La Fornarina (pictured), are to go on show in a major new exhibition at the National Gallery in London

The artist is most often associated with his serene paintings of the Madonna in pastoral settings against a blue sky. But in La Fornarina, we see a very different side to the great master.

The exhibition, delayed by Covid, was scheduled for 2020, the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death. And it reveals just how much the painter packed into his short life.

‘In a 20-year career, Raphael revolutionised Western art and his impact was felt for hundreds of years, arguably shaping the European tradition more than any other artist before or since,’ says David Ekserdjian, co-curator of the National Gallery show and co-author of Raphael, the book that accompanies the show.

Vasari, as well as pointing out Raphael’s taste for sexual excess, acknowledged he was the ottimo universale or universal artist.

When he died — of whatever cause — he was buried in Rome’s holy of holies, the Pantheon, the ancient temple in the heart of the city. There he still lies today and his Latin epitaph translates as: ‘Here lies that famous Raphael, whom Nature feared she’d been defeated by while he was alive. When he was dying, she feared she, too, would die.’

Raphael was so revered, some mourners wrongly claimed that, rather than being 37, he was 33 — the same age as Jesus on his death. That he died on Good Friday only added to his semi-divine status.

The painter was born Raphael Santi in Urbino in 1483 — he called himself Raphael ‘da Urbino’ (from Urbino) throughout his life.

When he was painting his sublime frescoes in the Villa Farnesina, on the banks of the Tiber in Rome, he ached for his stunning mistress Margherita Luti, known as La Fornarina, ‘the Baker’s Daughter’ (pictured)

When he was painting his sublime frescoes in the Villa Farnesina, on the banks of the Tiber in Rome, he ached for his stunning mistress Margherita Luti, known as La Fornarina, ‘the Baker’s Daughter’ (pictured)

His mother died when he was only eight. His father, Giovanni Santi, was a painter well-known in Urbino’s court circles. He gave Raphael a solid artistic foundation before he, too, died when his son was only 11.

Raphael’s big break was being appointed a boy-apprentice to Perugino, one of Italy’s greatest painters, and he heavily influenced Raphael’s early style.

One of the rumours that dogged Raphael was that he was a plagiarist. His deadly rival Michelangelo certainly thought so.

Michelangelo even suspected that Raphael conned his way into the Sistine Chapel to copy the ceiling he had painted there.

So envied was Raphael’s success, in fact, that some people think his early death was due to arsenic poisoning by a rival, not too much sex.

In truth, Raphael was utterly original. As Vasari said, Raphael ‘through studying the efforts of the old and modern masters, took the best from each of them and, by gathering all this together, enriched the art of painting’.

The artist is most often associated with his serene paintings of the Madonna in pastoral settings against a blue sky. But in La Fornarina, we see a very different side to the great master (Raphael and Foranina)

The artist is most often associated with his serene paintings of the Madonna in pastoral settings against a blue sky. But in La Fornarina, we see a very different side to the great master (Raphael and Foranina)

By the age of 17, he was already being described as a magister (master). While living in Perugia, he showed he had mastered Perugino’s style in his Coronation of the Virgin for the Oddi Chapel.

When he moved to Florence in his early 20s, he improved his skills by drawing copies of works by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. He diversified into red chalk, and pen and ink, and mastered the art of the tondo — the round painting.

In Florence, he painted some of his finest pictures of the Virgin and Child, including The Madonna of the Pinks, The Hermitage Holy Family, The Madonna Of The Meadow and Madonna Of The Goldfinch.

But it was in Rome that Raphael reached his peak, thanks to his great patron Pope Julius II, whose portrait is in the National Gallery show.

Julius II commissioned Raphael to decorate the Vatican Stanze (rooms). His frescoes there included his most famous picture: The School Of Athens, a much-imitated collection of the greatest thinkers of Ancient Greece, gathered round the philosophers Plato and Aristotle.

A mystery hovers over the late addition of a brooding character in the foreground, leaning on a stone. Officially, he is Heraclitus, another Greek philosopher. But some experts suggest it is, in fact, a miserable Michelangelo, angry that his younger rival was acquiring some of the best commissions in Rome.

Michelangelo had a point. Young Raphael wasn’t just working for the Pope.

By 1510 he was painting the personal chapel of Agostino Chigi, one of the city’s richest men. Soon after, he was painting frescoes at Chigi’s villa, now the Villa Farnesina. Here, he developed his gift for female and male nudes as well as mythological subjects.

Raphael was so revered, some mourners wrongly claimed that, rather than being 37, he was 33 — the same age as Jesus on his death. That he died on Good Friday only added to his semi-divine status (Raphael and Foranina)

Raphael was so revered, some mourners wrongly claimed that, rather than being 37, he was 33 — the same age as Jesus on his death. That he died on Good Friday only added to his semi-divine status (Raphael and Foranina)

Again and again in Raphael’s work, you get the sense of a questing mind, hungry for knowledge and new techniques. Continuing his work in the Vatican Stanze, he painted scenes that harmoniously brought together clashing light sources: natural light from the window combined with moonlight, firelight, torches, candles and the celestial light that clung to divine figures.

The world of painting could not confine him, however, and he was continually exploring new fields, becoming a master printmaker. In 1514, aged 31, he became the architect of the most important building in the city, St Peter’s Cathedral.

Raphael became the favourite of the new Pope, Leo X, who entrusted him with looking after the ancient antiquities in Rome. It was for Leo X that Raphael produced his next masterstroke — the tapestries for the Sistine Chapel.

With his breathtaking appetite for work, Raphael made drawings and cartoons for the tapestries.

Portrait of Raphael Sanzio, Italian Renaissance painter. He was appointed chief architect of St. Peter's Basilica before Michelangelo

Portrait of Raphael Sanzio, Italian Renaissance painter. He was appointed chief architect of St. Peter’s Basilica before Michelangelo

The cartoons, which belong to the Queen, are on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum, but a copy appears in the National Gallery show.

Leo X’s commissions came thick and fast. His gallery at the Vatican included so many biblical scenes — 48 from the Old Testament and four from the New Testament — that it became known as Raphael’s Bible.

Then, all of a sudden, the end came. On his death, a Roman, Pandolfo Pico, declared that, just like at the death of Christ in the New Testament, ‘the rocks rent’ — that is, the very walls of Rome split apart.

As he lay dying, Pope Leo X sent word to Raphael six times to show his devotion to him.

His favourite artist had packed several lifetimes’ worth of art — and love — into his brief 37 years.

Raphael is at the National Gallery from April 9 until July 31.

Background of a masterpiece 

So who was the Baker’s Daughter?

The painting is said to be of Margherita Luti, Raphael’s lover. Margherita’s nickname was La Fornarina — ‘the baker’s daughter’.

But this phrase was also slang for a woman of low repute or a prostitute. The yellow scarf she wears was the trademark of a Roman woman who was prepared to strip for artists.

According to the art historian, Giorgio Vasari, Margherita Luti repeatedly refused to marry Raphael.

False hope raised for lovelorn artist

When Margherita turned Raphael down, he was said to be no longer able to paint.

His rich patron, Agostino Chigi, apparently faked a letter from her to Raphael, saying that she would return to him once he had finished his commission for Chigi.

Final legacy

La Fornarina, painted in 1519, was one of Raphael’s last works.

It is thought the painting was in his studio when he died a year later.

Marriage on hold

In 1514, Raphael got engaged to Maria Bibbiena, from one of Rome’s grandest families: her uncle was a cardinal.

But he never married her, keeping the engagement going for six years.

She died before him and is buried beside him in the Pantheon.

That engagement didn’t end the affair with La Fornarina, to whom he made no public commitment.

Smile to seduce

Her expression is unusually direct and flirtatious.

X-rays have shown that Raphael changed her expression from a more animated look to this cool but intimate version.

Home town hero

The armlet is inscribed ‘RaphaelVrbinas’ — meaning ‘Raphael from Urbino’, his home town.

Roman goddess

La Fornarina was probably a famous beauty in Rome.

Another painter, Giulio Romano, did a similar picture of a nude woman who looks very like her. 

Ring mystery

X-rays have shown there was once a ruby ring on a finger on her left hand, suggesting she might have secretly married Raphael.

Erotic echoes of the veiled Venus

La Fornarina’s pose echoes Ancient Roman statues of Venus, the goddess of love, where the deity is naked but covers her sexual parts with a hand and a veil.

Raphael exaggerates the Roman model, making the breasts bigger, hardening the nipples — one of which, in an erotic gesture, she points at the viewer — emphasising her comehither expression 

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