There is no better year than 2020 to discover some of the many mysteries of Raffaello’s life: we remember, this year, the 500th anniversary of his death. And there is no better time than April, the month the artist was born and died, according to records on the very same day, the 6th.
Italy had prepared an incredible birthday celebration for this beloved son of hers but, alas, the coronavirus pandemic forced the Scuderie del Quirinale exhibit to close for the time being — yet, you can still enjoy it virtually, if you like.
The art of Raffaello is well known around the world, but his life remains, under many points of view, still surrounded by secrecy. Love and death are just two of the many mysteries of Raffaello’s life, those that made of the artist a character worth of a novel, just like other geniuses like Mozart and Modigliani.
The many mysteries of Raffaello’s life: his love for La Fornarina…
If there is something we know about Raffaello is how much he loved women and enjoyed their company: he was, according to his most notorious biographer Giorgio Vasari, a bit of an ante literram Latin Lover.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that one of the many mysteries of Raffaello is related to a woman, to be precise, to the woman portrayed in La Fornarina. The painting shows a young, beautiful girl, coyly covering her small breasts with a hand, her round belly and hips delicately hidden by a see-through veil. By many art critics considered an allegory of Venus and, thus of Love itself, it was acquired by the Barberini family in the mid-17th century and it is, indeed, in their residence, Palazzo Barberini, we can still admire it today.
Speculations about who the girl in the portrait may be have been around for ever and in many a version. One of the most romantic wants her to be young Margherita Luti, daughter of a baker from Trastevere of Sienese ancestry, with whom Raffaello would have shared a passionate story during the last months of his tumultuous life. According to some, it was true love: the two would have secretly married shortly before Raffaello’s untimely — and mysterious — death.
But if we believe Vasari, who certainly knew a thing or two about good old Raffaello, Margherita wasn’t a baker’s daughter at all, but just one of the painter’s many lovers, possibly a prostitute, who resided in Trastevere and shared with the painter many a night of pleasure.
…Which leads us into another of the many mysteries of Raffaello’s life, that of his death.
… his mysterious death …
It is Vasari again to tell us about Raffaello’s death and how it occurred. According to the Aretine artist and writer, Raffaello died of a “fever” that lasted for more than fifteen days and that had been caused by his “love-making excesses.” The vast majority of researchers interpreted Vasari’s words as a politically correct way to say Raffaello died of venereal disease, most likely of syphilis. Indeed, chronic fever was one of the signs associated with the illness in its most acute phase.
If La Fornarina was one of the painter’s favorite sexual companions, thinking she may have been also the reason of his death, although unwillingly, doesn’t seem too far fetched.
But Raffaello truly is a man of a thousand mysteries. According to others, the painter didn’t die of a venereal disease, but was poisoned. A protegé of the Pope and noblemen around Italy, Raffaello was envied by many . That’s why, especially since the 18th century, many researchers advanced the hypothesis he had been killed by a jealous rival, possibly with arsenic. Indeed, when his body was exhumed in 1722, it was in perfect condition, with no signs of decomposition, which hinted at the possible presence of arsenic in his system at the time of death. Some even believe to have found the murderer: Sebastiano del Piombo, one of his fiercer rivals, who had been commissioned, just like Raffaello himself, an altar painting by Giuliano de Medici, in 1516.
…and postmortem adventures
If you think Raffaello’s adventures ended with his death, well, you’re wrong. Barbara Jatta, director of the Vatican Museums, along with Cardinal Ravasi, decided to launch the Enigma Raffaello project. This collaboration among the Accademia dei Virtuosi, Rome’s Fine Arts Academy, the Vatican Museums and La Sapienza University aims at exhuming once more the painter’s corpse to confirm that those in the Pantheon are, in fact, Raffaello’s remains, to ascertain his cause of death and to reconstruct, thanks to bone structure studies, his physical appearance.
After the exhumation of 1722, another took place in the 19th century, during which doctors found a skull, a large portion of the skeleton and a number of objects that belonged to the artist, including colors and brushes.
Of course, the project is on hold, at the moment, until the end of the Covid- 19 pandemic, but hopefully 2020 will bring us the solution of at least some of the many mysteries of Raffaello’s life.