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Tuesday, 23 January, 2001, 10:15 GMT
Discovery hints at Renaissance romance
The river Tiber in Rome
Raphael's mistress was born by the river Tiber
By Joanna Robertson in Rome

A soft light surrounded the painting within the darkened room. Outside, the rain fell.

The sound of it reached inwards from behind the dark-wood shutters - rainwater cascading down three storeys to the sodden ornamental gardens below.

Beyond the railings, at the foot of the Via Veneto, buses, cars and umbrella-carrying pedestrians jostled for space. Within the Palazzo Barberini, inside the hushed darkened room, people surrounded the painting.

Flanked by panels telling of its history, layer-by-layer accounts of its painstaking restoration and X-rays of the canvas, they pushed towards a broad golden frame.

Female portrait

There they found a woman - naturally resplendent, yet shy - sitting half-naked before a backdrop of thick verdant foliage. A fringe of sky - evening azure blue - was lapping the leaves.

The Colosseum
Rome is famous for its art and architecture
The woman sits. Her plain centre-parted hair is gloriously be-turbaned in many-pleated raw silk - old gold woven through in bands of peacock-blue-threaded embroidery, adorned by a golden brooch set with rubies, and a heavy pearl.

Her deep oval eyes are warm with love, and gaze - not before her - but quietly across to something - or someone - slightly to the side of her, who is beginning to make her pretty mouth smile.

One soft plump arm draws a diaphanous veil across her naked rounded belly, up to her breasts, where she gently holds it, the fingers of her right hand outspread.

Tied around her other arm is a proud Latin-scripted band of ownership - 'Raphael Urbinas', or Raphael of Urbino. The fingers of her left hand reach down between her crimson-silk shrouded thighs to where the canvas ends.

Ruby ring

And on the fourth finger, slipped over the first knuckle joint, is a square-cut, blood-red ruby ring.

It is a ring that has lain hidden for almost 500 years.

The great Renaissance artist, Raphael, painted this portrait of his mistress, a certain Margherita Luti, in 1520, the last year of his life.

She was the daughter of Francesco Senese, a baker from Trastevere - that bawdy, spirited quarter of Rome set apart from the rest of the ancient city by the lazy brown waters of the Tiber.

Rome at dusk
Tourists flock to see the city of the great Renaissance painters
On Good Friday, his 37th birthday, Raphael died suddenly, leaving the portrait of his beloved unfinished. His favourite student, Guilio Romano, took the canvas, only to sell it shortly afterwards.

By this time the ring was carefully veiled with paint, but whether by Guilio's hand or the hand of the dying Raphael, no one quite knows.

For the ring, if seen, would have created a public scandal. Raphael was unwillingly - but very publicly - engaged to Maria Bibiena, his illustrious cardinal-patron's niece.

Dangerous Liaison

Caught up in his passionate affair with the irresistible Margherita, he procrastinated for six years over the wedding date whilst transforming the baker's daughter into an icon, repeatedly painting her face into some of his greatest works.

Maria died waiting for her nuptials.

Now, with the uncovering of the ruby ring, it seems that Raphael was secretly betrothed to his true love, but that he never lived to marry her.

Margherita Luti, the baker's daughter, was known as 'La Fornarina', a woman who played out her life along and across and between a small network of winding cobbled streets and ancient piazzas.

A 'Trasteverina', born by the river, who lived her given span of years, loved, lost and died all within a short walk of my front door.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo
Michelangelo, another Renaissance painter, worked in Rome
Opposite the bar where I drink my morning cappuccino, winter-leaved fig trees stretch their branches over a garden wall. Carved beneath some jasmine is an inscription: 'This was the garden of La Fornarina'.

Garden paradise

A few steps further on, there is another garden, filled with birds. It is a maze of ornamental hedges and sweet-smelling orange trees, where leaf-carpeted paths meander through the pines.

This green and sunlit place wraps round a perfectly proportioned Renaissance mansion, the elegant Villa Farnesina. Here, Raphael painted a beautiful goddess - Galatea, triumphant, driving a team of dolphins through the waves - and designed the amorous adventures of Psyche.

It was also where, in order to inspire his work, he was allowed to live for a time with La Fornarina, in mortal bliss.

My short walk home passes a small, rather dingy square, the graffiti-covered Piazza San Apollonia, where a disused butcher's shop, an ironmongers and a tiny comedy theatre are all that remain of the final act in this famous love affair.

Raphael died his sudden Easter death in a house in this square, whilst painting Margherita's face into his Transfiguration. And that August, a convent of the Franciscan order, a house for repentant women, gave refuge to the grieving Fornarina.

The coda lies across the Tiber, within the hallowed walls of the Pantheon, where tributes of flowers - roses, lilies and roses again - are daily offered to Raphael, enclosed in his carved marble tomb.

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