He was a Renaissance celebrity, known not only for his superb artistic talent but for his personal charm. Very publicly engaged to Maria Bibbiena, the niece of a powerful cardinal, scholars believed him to have had a mistress by the name of Margherita Luti, the daughter of a Sienese baker. Marriage to a woman of such a lowly social status would hardly have helped his career; general public knowledge of such a liaison could have damaged his reputation.
But recent research conducted by Italian art historian Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz suggests that Raphael Sanzio may have followed his heart and secretly married Margherita Luti.
Important clues to the relationship can be found in the recently-restored "Fornarina," the portrait of a seductive beauty begun in 1516 and left unfinished by Raphael. Half-clothed and smiling suggestively, the subject wears a ribbon on her left arm bearing Raphael's name. Pinned to her turban is a pearl -- and the meaning of "Margherita" is "pearl." X-rays taken during restoration reveal in the background quince and myrtle bushes -- symbols of fertility and fidelity. And on her left hand was a ring, the existence of which was painted out, probably by Raphael's students after the master's death.
All these symbols would have been extraordinarily meaningful to the average Renaissance viewer. To anyone who understood the symbolism, the portrait practically shouts "this is my beautiful wife Margherita and I love her."
In addition to the portrait, Curuz has uncovered documentary evidence that Raphael and Margherita were married in a secret ceremony. Curuz also believes Margherita to be the subject of "La Donna Velata" (the Veiled Lady), which one contemporary noted was the painting of the woman Raphael "loved until he died."
It had been theorized that Raphael didn't paint the Fornarina at all, and that instead it is the work of one of his pupils. Curuz and his associates now believe that Raphael's pupils deliberately obscured the nuptial symbolism to protect his reputation and continue their own work at the Sala di Constantino in the Vatican, the loss of which would have bankrupted them. To reinforce the pretense, Raphael's students placed a plaque on his tomb in memory of his fiancee, Bibbiena.
And Margherita Luti (Sanzio)? Four months after Raphael's death, the "widow Margherita" is recorded as arriving at the convent of Sant'Apollonia in Rome.