Artist Stories

Too Much Love Will Kill You – The Death of Raphael

Zuzanna Stańska 31 August 2023 min Read

Raphael Santi, one of the greatest Renaissance painters died on Good Friday in 1520. He was only 37 years old and at the peak of his artistic powers. So what happened? How did he die?

Giorgio Vasari, the lead gossip boy of his times recounts in his “The Lives of the Artists” that Raphael died of… too much sex. There was an easy Medieval explanation to this – the human body is controlled by humor, health depends on a balance of humors, and Raphael’s was destabilized by too much action in bed. The artist fell into a fever, didn’t tell his doctors what was the cause and they gave him the wrong cure, killing him as a result.

The illness lasted 15 days, and luckily Raphael was composed enough to confess his sins, receive the last rites, and put his affairs in order. He dictated his will, in which he left sufficient funds for his mistress’s care, entrusted to his loyal servant Baviera, and left most of his studio contents to other artists, Giulio Romano and Penni.

At his request, Raphael was buried in the Pantheon and his funeral was extremely grand, attended by large crowds. The inscription in his marble sarcophagus sounds: “Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”

But who was the unlucky lover, with whom Raphael spent his last happy night?

Raphael never married, but in 1514 became engaged to Maria Bibbiena, Cardinal Medici Bibbiena’s niece. He wasn’t very enthusiastic about this marriage – Maria in the end died in 1520 as a maiden. Raphael is said to have had many affairs, but a permanent fixture in his life in Rome was beautiful “La Fornarina“, Margherita Luti, the daughter of a baker (fornaro) named Francesco Luti. That’s her portrait:

Raphael, La Fornarina, 1518-20, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica raphael death
Raphael, La Fornarina, 1518-20, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica

Of her, Flaubert wrote, in his Dictionary of Received Ideas: “Fornarina. She was a beautiful woman. That is all you need to know.” Margarita is not mentioned by Vasari but is named twice in 16th-century marginalia in the second edition of his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. In a letter of 1806, Melchior Missirini recounted the tale of their first meeting, of how Raphael fell in love after watching her as she bathed her feet in the Tiber in the garden beside his house in Trastevere, only to discover that “her mind was as beautiful as her body.” Of course, it might be only a legend. But it works for the imagination!

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