Raphael’s Fornarina, Sex Work and Cross-Dressing in Renaissance Rome

Half-smiling, half-naked, her fingers more suggestive than concealing (the risqué”v” of her left hand! The slight give where her index finger presses the soft skin of her breast!), this woman’s warm relationship with the viewer is far from the icy profiles of the fancy high society women portrayed by, say, Domenico Ghirlandaio, or the sometimes slightly creepy ambiguity of Leonardo da Vinci’s female sitters, or even the too-perfect blonde anonymity of Titian’s women.

raphael fornarina
Raphael, Portrait of a Young Woman (La Fornarina). 1518-19. Oil on Panel, 85 cm × 60 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica (Palazzo Barberini), Rome.

We don’t really know who the sitter was. Now called the Fornarina, or the Baker’s Girl, this epithet was a title given this painting in the nineteenth century, a poetic invention based on Vasari’s story of Raphael’s lovers. Some people identify her as a woman called Margherita Luti, but the evidence is shaky, to say the least. It’s a famous image, and has been frequently discussed by art historians. What’s not normally recognised, though, is that the long yellow scarf tied around her head suggests she is a sex worker, one of the unsung heroes of Renaissance art, women who were willing to take their clothes off for artists (for a fee, of course – and why not?). Yellow scarves were required wearing in many Italian states for what were then called “dishonest women”, who were allowed to bare their breasts as long as they wore their conspicuous yellow veils.

In fact, the years when Raphael was painting this portrait in Rome were the beginnings of the European golden age of the courtesan, and this painting is the fruit of a culture that was experimenting with diverse forms of sexual relationship, often influenced by ideas of love and sex derived from the writings of classical antiquity. The word “courtesan” (or “cortegiana” in Italian) was coined in these years. Its first known written usage is both revealing and upsetting.

Johannes Burchard, the papal master of ceremonies recorded in his diary on 2 April 1498, about how Rome was scandalised by a woman called Cursetta “a courtesan, that is an honest prostitute”, who had dressed her black male servant (nicknamed “Spanish Barbara”) in women’s clothes, and had also been sleeping with him. Their punishment was to be paraded around Rome. Cursetta was shamed by walking round semi-dressed in a black velvet gown slit to reveal her naked body. Barbara had his dress tied up above the belly button so everyone could see his genitals; the “trick” of gender switching was thus exposed.

They were put in jail after this ritualised punishment, but Cursetta was soon set free. Her servant was not to be so lucky.  After a brief time in jail, he was released only to take part in a procession to his death, lead by an executioner riding a donkey, carrying a Jewish man’s testicles on a stick (this poor man had been castrated for sleeping with a Christian woman). They went from the prison to the Campo dei Fiori, where the thieves were hanged, but Barbara was tied to the stake on a woodpile to be burnt alive.

This document reminds us that queering society’s norms of gender and sexuality has an extremely long history, and that this history is full of violent repression for the people who deviate from patriarchal norms. The fact that the servant was not white most likely added to the severity of his punishment. Perhaps you will remember  this story next time you read about the Italian Renaissance being a “golden age”.

It allows us to understand that the portrait of the Fornarina is inherently transgressive. Her  yellow scarf evokes both the exotic and the shameful and marks her out, along with her bear breasts, as an outsider to “respectable” society.   Raphael seeks to show his love for (and ownership of?) this woman through painting his name in gold letters on her blue armlet, an act that for the educated viewer would evoke associations with classical sculptures of Venus. Perhaps his real act of love, however, is that he portrayed her as resolutely not a figment of his imagination, but as a living presence. It’s a portrait that, in many ways, goes against the grain.

Want to read more?
Ulrich Pfisterer writes a catalogue entry for this painting (with different conclusions to mine – informed disagreement is good!) in Thomas Kren, Jill Burke and Stephen J. Campbell eds., The Renaissance Nude.

I write more about the Fornarina in the context of the female nude in The Italian Renaissance Nude. I also write about female nakedness as a punishment in the first chapter, and in a previous blog post.

James Grantham Turner has some great things to say about the renaissance art, particularly the Raphael workshop and sexuality in Eros Visible

For more tales of wayward renaissance women, Deanna Shemek wrote a book about this – Ladies Errant: Wayward Women and Social Order in Early Modern Italy. 

And on courtesans, the book by Margaret Rosenthal on Veronica Franco is fabulous, and contains much information that contextualises Franco in wider courtesan culture.

Or if your interest is slightly more casual, here’s the wikipedia page on the Fornarina.

%d bloggers like this: