La Fornarina reveals Raphael at his most lascivious. Against a dark, leafy background, a woman with a bare torso and pert nipples holds a sheer cloth by her left breast, while her left arm—encircled with a blue band that reads “Raphael Urbinas”—rests on her lap. A colorful turban wraps around her dark hair, which is elegantly parted down the center. Her large brown eyes look left, out of the frame.
Raphael’s sitter was probably his lover Margherita Luti, a baker’s daughter, or fornarina. Forcellino interprets her armband as “a token of the woman’s ownership rather than of the painting’s authorship.” Raphael died before he could complete the work, which remained in his studio for the remainder of his life, suggesting that the artist may not have intended it for public view. Even centuries later, the intimate portrait remains one of the most erotically charged paintings in Western art.
During the cold winter of 1520, the year the work was completed, Forcellino pontificates, “even art had to surrender to the relentless cycle of the seasons; inebriated by the carnival spirit, Raphael dedicated himself entirely to love.” That year, Raphael succumbed to a fever, and died on his birthday. Vasari attributed his illness to excessive sex from his love affair, a prescription that today sounds unlikely. Nevertheless, Raphael’s enduring reputation as his era’s most impassioned, romantic painter had already been established.