Did you know? Raphael’s secret love, hidden in his paintings

Following the popularity of the ‘did you know’ post about Michelangelo, Agora Gallery assistant Chiara has agreed to share another fun, exciting aspect of the Renaissance art world with us, this time focusing on the renowned painter and architect Raphael. It might give you a whole new insight into the details painters choose to include in their works!

Did you know?

The art world has always been influenced by collectors and powerful personalities who entrust to artists the task of committing their favorite images and values to a painting or sculpture, with the aim of celebrating their prestige and becoming immortal. In this way, many people over the centuries have hoped to leave a sign of their lives, one that will be remembered long after their deaths.

This was particularly true during past times when talented artists were dependent on patronage, meaning that they had no choice but to satisfy the requests of those who were powerful during their times. These people were the ones with the financial ability and the desire to have their images or ideas immortalized through art.

Given that art is a personal matter for the artist, and that many artists prefer to use their creations to express something important to them, it should be no surprise that many of the artists who worked on commissions for the rich and powerful found secret ways to express their real feelings and beliefs in their paintings. In this way, they could create something which on a surface level represented what they had been requested to paint, but in fact held a whole separate world of symbols and declarations which would only be understandable to someone taking a closer look.

Master artist Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino) (1483-1520) was a professional Italian painter and architect who was famous for his kindly nature, his relaxed attitude to court life and his considerable beauty – aside from his reputation for his able use of colors and his tremendous artistic talent. One of the more influential personalities of Raphael’s era was Cardinal Bernardo, a powerful man of the Church who commissioned art from Raphael on a regular basis.

Cardinal Bernardo had a niece, Maria Bibbiena, who wanted to marry Raphael. The artist felt that he could not refuse, being placed in a difficult position due to the cardinal’s enormous influence. Yet it presented him with a problem – because Raphael was already secretly in love with the daughter of a baker, Margherita Luti, a woman often referred to as La Fornarina (the (female) Baker). He accepted the role as Maria Bibbiena’s fiancé, but continually postponed the marriage, so that it had still not taken place when he died.

Raphael’s mistress was his favorite female model from 1508 onwards, and in fact the protagonist of some of Raphael’s most famous portraits: La Fornarina and La Velata. Raphael was not free to declare his love and commitment to her, so while he was Maria Bibbiena’s official fiancé, he kept hiding marriage vows and love symbols in his paintings, such as a myrtle bush, associated with love and marriage, a wedding ring (removed from La Velata and now only visible through scientific analysis), a bridal vest, and accessories decorated with Raphael’s name. In addition, both portraits include pearls which the artist chose to decorate the hair of the sitter. The reason for this was likely because the word for ‘pearl’ was originally ‘Margarita’ – a clear reference to the name of his beloved.

Due to Raphael’s premature death at 37, he could not complete what studies suggest was his last portrait of his favorite model. She herself decided to retire to a convent four months after his death, and history has lost sight of her after that time.

We can all still admire Raphael’s devotion to his Margherita and continue to search for the secret symbols in his paintings that will never stop declaring his commitment to his loved one. And if you enjoy this, perhaps you would like to start exploring what further surprises and hints are waiting to be discovered in the paintings of artists who were painting for commissions but managed to slip into the works references to their own personality and ideas!


  • It’s an amazing story for I adore rennaissance paintings and such bits of information about it is very interesting as part of the artist’s life. Leonardo Da Vinci had a somewhat similar case, his love to La Gioconda, and his master piece ‘Mona Lisa’, which hangs in the Louvre museum in Paris. Thanks very much for I’ve enjoyed this interesting article.

  • I second that, an amazing story, in actuality a stupendous one indeed … immortalised in a painting, no less. How truly romantic and permanent. How many men in today’s selfish world would be as unselfish or go the extra yard for his beloved? I can think of none who would match this painter’s [artistic] expression for pure and simple but everlasting love. <3 :-O

  • Hello Chiara
    I am a painter and I study the istory of Italian painting for over 30 years. Raphael and Leonard are among my favorite artist but I did not know this story, I am grateful to share it.
    Thank you!

    cerco in italiano
    Mi scuso se il mio italiano non è molto buona, ma sto lavorando

    Ciao Chiara
    Sono un pittore e io studio la storia della pittura italiana da oltre 30 anni. Cinquecento italiano è il periodo che preferisco e quello che mi ha influenzato di più

    Raffaello e Leonardo sono tra i miei artisti preferiti, ma non sapevo questa storia, sono grato a condividerlo. Grazie!

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