Raphael (1483-1520), was, along with Leonardo and Michelangelo, one of the three great artistic masters of the High Renaissance. In the area of painting, his influence was, until at least the twentieth century, perhaps the greatest of all three. He was in particular a master of portrait painting, and all portraiture after Raphael shows something of his influence.
Like Leonardo and Michelangelo, Raphael was a lover of beauty. Unlike his two rivals, however, he was a keen lover of feminine beauty. There is little doubt as to the homosexual desires of both Leonardo and Michelangelo, it is well reflected in their works, as well as their lack of any real sexual, romantic involvement with women throughout their lives. Raphael, however, (according to his biographer, Vasari), was quite amorous, romantic, and enjoyed many affairs with different women. This is reflected in his artwork, of which feminine beauty is one of the hallmarks.
In today’s world is it hard, with our ubiquitous porn and sexuality, to appreciate the subtle eroticism of some of Raphael’s works. Even his Madonna’s have a beauty that is altogether lacking in Leonardo’s androgynous, or Michelangelo’s downright masculine, Madonna’s. Raphael was a lover of feminine beauty, and that includes an erotic feminine beauty. He is one of the first artists of the modern world to unabashedly delight in such beauties.
This portrait is a famous one, La Fornarina (“The Bakeress”). Painted sometime between 1518-1520, it is a portrait of Magherita Luti, one of Raphael’s lovers. She was perhaps the woman he loved most in his life, as many of his other paintings of beautiful women, Madonnas, mythological figures, seem to be of her. Today this painting would seem completely benign to most people (except religious fanatics), yet in its day it was rather risque and controversial. In the early sixteenth century to show a woman’s bare breasts, in a clearly erotic, suggestive way, was not something the connoisseurs of high art often approved. There is a certain erotic audacity at play here. The placement of one hand across her breasts and the other between her legs is quite evocative of a hidden, sexual content. She seems both coy and inviting, hesitant yet willing. Such contradictions are often part of our erotic world. Raphael delights in the sensuality of the flesh, the soft, warm tones of color, the tenderness of her dark eyes, the delicacy of the diaphanous fabric surrounding her torso. She sits in front of the myrtle bush, a symbol of sexuality at that time. He boldly caps it off by writing his name on the band around her left arm, as if to proudly proclaim this is his creation, not only the eroticism of the painting, but the eroticism of the woman herself.
I have written this here so often, but I will never tire of writing it: what I love most about the Renaissance is the sheer, exuberant devotion to beauty so many artists in that period possessed. Perhaps it was only natural that such a devotion to pure, harmonious beauty could last but a few short decades, as the calm classicism of the High Renaissance soon gave way to the more tortured style of Mannerism and finally the overblown energy of the Baroque; but while it lasted these Renaissance artists captured something of a noble and spiritual beauty that has never been captured since. Everything seems to be perfectly united: the spirit and the flesh are one, spirituality and sexuality seem blended, harmonious and beautiful.
The difference between their approach to sexuality and eroticism and ours is marked. Too much of modern sexuality, eroticism, etc, is devoid of anything beautiful; it often tends to the mere carnal pursuits of pleasure, without the spiritual essence of true love and beauty, the very things that separate us from the rest of the animal world. There is an ugliness in that. Rapheal’s painting show how a deep eroticism can exists within a spiritual world that is as important as the sexual, if not more so; it is a world of erotic beauty, of a sexuality infused with spiritual love. pleasure and mystery. In the crudeness of so much of modern porn and sexuality, to rediscover the beauty of these earlier expressions of eroticism is quite refreshing.