It’s been a bit of a Renaissance few weeks – not only have I been catching up on the latest series of Medici: The Magnificent (which I definitely recommend!) but I also was fully immersed in the High Renaissance art world of Rome through my latest read, Kerry Postle’s novel The Woman in the Painting. Romance, history and painting – what more could I ask for?
Postle’s novel follows the final twelve years of the life of Raphael the painter, through the eyes of a member of his workshop. And not only this, but fictionalises his relationship with the famous La Fornarina, the baker’s daughter, Margarita Luti. This was right up my street, as I am fascinated by Raphael and Margarita, the sitter in his paintings La Fornarina and La Donna Velata – read my post about them here.
Not only this, but I absolutely loved the aim of Postle’s novel, which was to exonerate the reputation of Luti. Famously, Raphael’s cause of death was supposedly a fever from exerting himself through having too much sex – enshrined by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists:
“Raphael secretly attended to his love affairs and pursued in his amorous pleasures beyond all moderation, and on one occasion he happened to be even more immoderate than usual; having returned home, for that reason, with a very high fever … So he made his will and first, as a good Christian, sent his mistress away after giving her the means to live honestly; … Then, having confessed and repented, Raphael came to the end of his life’s journey”.
The tale begins with Pietro, who is a member of the workshop of Michelangelo in Rome. The notoriously cantankerous artist throws the young apprentice out, who then manages to find work at the studio of Sebastiano del Piombo. This move is fascinating, as Michelangelo and Sebastiano were good friends and helped each other a lot in the competitive world of High Renaissance art commissions (read more about their friendship here) – and both couldn’t stand Raphael. Then, after working at Sebastiano’s for a while (all through Sebastiano painting his previous version of La Fornarina with Margarita as the model), Pietro is thrown out yet again for spilling a paint pigment and finds himself on the street.
Pietro is happened upon by a vision of an artist: he falls in love with Raphael upon sight, and it is no surprise. Vasari wrote of him that “Nature created him as a gift to the world”. Pietro already knows Guilio Romano, a favoured pupil of Raphael, who manages to get him into the younger artist’s workshop. In the time between Pietro being offered a place at Raphael’s and making it there, he is also rescued from the streets by Margarita.
Margarita is a passionate, witty and outspoken woman who is a wonderful character in Postle’s novel. And she has a complex relationship with the artist: refusing to give in to being his mere mistress. It is interesting, and also great to see Margarita take centre stage as a character in a story rather than just a footnote in the life of a brilliant artist. Instead of being a distraction from Raphael’s art, Margarita is instead a muse for it.
What I like most is the exploration of the meaning of the findings of the 2001 x-ray of La Fornarina, when researchers found that a ruby ring on the third finger of Margarita’s left hand had been painted over. This of course called into question everything that had been supposed about Margarita and her relationship with Raphael: were they in fact secretly engaged, despite Raphael’s long engagement to Cardinal Bibbiena’s niece, with whom he was in fact entombed with in the Pantheon? It’s such an interesting historical mystery.
Pietro is an interesting narrator, full of his own demons as a young man in Renaissance Rome, jealous of Margarita’s relationship with Raphael, but also observing the happiness they find in each other. Through Pietro, we are also given an insight into the politics and personalities of High Renaissance Rome, as well as the creation of some of the most famous pieces in Western Art.
Postle creates an immersive world that I absolutely devoured, wanting to hear more about the art, the commissions, the Vatican and most of all, the woman in the painting. It’s a read I’d definitely recommend to anyone who likes art historical fiction!
Thank you to HQ Digital for gifting me a copy through NetGalley in exchange for a review.