• Italiano

Raphael, Portrait of a Young Woman (La Muta). Urbino, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche

Author Biography

"Raphael was born in Urbino, an illustrious Italian town, in 1483, on Good Friday at three o'clock in the morning, to a father named Giovanni de' Santi, a painter of no great excellence", wrote Giorgio Vasari in the 1568 edition of his Lives of the Artists, in the chapter dedicated to the artist. The young Raphael learned his first lessons of drawing and painting in his father's workshop, revealing an early and great aptitude for painting.

The environment of Urbino and then Umbria were decisive for his training, as it gave him the opportunity to know not only the works of Flemish artists, but also those of Piero della Francesca, Signorelli and Pinturicchio. Of fundamental importance were also his connections with the workshop of Perugino, of whom, according to Vasari, Raphael was a pupil; today it is rather believed that Raphael worked in his workshop as a collaborator, rather than as a pupil. The strong influence of Perugino’s workshop on Raphael is however unquestionable: in fact, in several works realized by Perugino and his workshop, critics have often identified various interventions by the hand of Raphael.

Between 1499 and 1504, as his fame grew, he worked between Perugia and Città di Castello, with a brief interlude in Siena, where he went following an invite on behalf of Pinturicchio. Enticed by the news of the great task of the decoration of the Salone dei Cinquecento in Palazzo Vecchio, entrusted to Leonardo and Michelangelo on behalf of the Gonfaloniere Pier Soderini, he went to Florence in 1504, recommended by Giovanna Feltria, Duchess of Urbino. His stay in Florence lasted until 1508, but this did not interrupt his contacts with Umbria, from which he continued to receive commissions from both Perugia and Urbino.

The fervent Florentine cultural and artistic climate of the early Sixteenth century allowed him to make important friendships, not only with wealthy citizens, from whom he received important commissions, but also with several Florentine artists such as Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, Fra Bartolomeo and Aristotele San Gallo. With these artists he certainly studied the cartoons of Leonardo and Michelangelo and he attended the workshop of Baccio d'Agnolo. Raphael’s stay in Florence was of fundamental importance in his training: not only for the opportunity of studying the great masters of the Fifteenth century, but also, as already mentioned, Leonardo and Michelangelo, both present in Florence during those years, and who were fundamental for the definition of Raphael’s style and poetics.

In 1508 he went to Rome following the call of Pope Julius II, who had started the great urban and artistic renovation of the city in those years, to participate in particular in the decoration of the new Vatican rooms. This assignment marked a decisive turning point in the career of the painter who, from this moment on, became one of the most sought-after artists in Rome. Following Bramante's death in 1514, he was appointed architect in charge of the construction of the new Basilica of Saint Peter, a position that made him illustrious also as an architect. He died in 1520, and was buried in the Pantheon according to his own will.


History of the artwork

The Portrait of a Noblewoman, also known as La Muta – the Silent Woman, because of her immersed expression, is today in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, in Urbino. This incredible masterpiece has been unanimously attributed by critics to the hand of Raphael and is generally considered to have been realized during the artist's last years in Florence, around 1506-1507. The identity of the woman represented is still debated. The many proposals to identify the subject include: Maddalena Strozzi Doni (M. L. Gengaro, 1940), later excluded having been recognized in a painting in the Galleria Palatina, Florence; the artist's step-sister, Elisabetta (G. Rosini, 1843); the painter’s mother Magia Ciarla (G. Gronau, 1909); Elisabetta Gonzaga (F. Filippini, 1925) and Giovanna Feltria della Rovere (E. Sesti, 1983), known to have been a patroness of the artist.

A first documentary record of the painting can be dated to the second half of the 17th century, as in the 1666 inventory of the inheritance of the Dean of the College of Cardinals Carlo de' Medici there is mentioned a portrait of "a woman in a low cut green dress with a necklace around her neck, said to be a copy of Andrea del Sarto" which could be identified with La Muta by Raphael.  

A more certain source is the inventory of paintings in Palazzo Pitti owned by the Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici (1702-1710), a document in which the work is not only mentioned, but in which the attribution to Raphael appears for the first time. Until the early seventies of the 18th century, the work is documented in the Medici Villa in Poggio a Caiano, in the room in which Ferdinando had decided to collect together his favourite paintings, the "Gabinetto d'Opere in piccolo di tutti i più famosi Pittori" (the small cabinet of artworks of all the most famous painters - M. L. Srocchi, 1975-76).

Subsequently, in 1772, according to the desire of Pietro Leopoldo and his project of reorganising the grand-ducal collections, Giuseppe Querci and the restorer Magni, together with a minister of the Guardaroba delle Regie Gallerie, were sent to the villa in Poggio a Caiano for an inspection. From the artworks present in the villa, 174 paintings were chosen for the Uffizi, amongst which there was also the noblewoman’s portrait by Raphael, which was therefore placed, after  December 1773, in the Room of the Sleeping Hermaphrodite Room, and was at a later date transferred to the Uffizi Tribuna (G. Barucca, 2015).

Here it remained on display until 1927, when Benito Mussolini agreed to the transfer of the Portrait from the Uffizi Gallery to the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino, following a request by a Commission of the town of Urbino to acquire a painting by Raphael. In the artist's birthtown, Urbino, there was not a single artwork of his; this was certainly an act of cultural politics on behalf of the Minister Mussolini. Since 1927 the portrait has remained definitively in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, in the Palazzo Ducale of Urbino. 


Artwork history

Chronology: Critics agree in chronologically dating the Portrait of a Noblewoman towards the end of the period the artist spent in Florence, from 1504 to 1508. This dating is based on a stylistic comparison with other portraits assigned to Raphael, such as La Gravida (The Pregnant Woman) of the Palatine Gallery, Florence (1506-1507), to which La Muta shows an affinity for its refined technique as well as in its stylistic elements.

Patronage: Considering that the portrait was probably realized by the artist during his stay in Florence, it can be assumed that its commission came from one of the families with whom Raphael had contacts during this period. Another theory is that, although distant from Urbino, the artist could still have received commissions from his birthtown, including La Muta. This could be further confirmed by the identity of the lady portrayed, who could be Giovanna Feltria della Rovere. The Duchess of Urbino was one of Raphael’s protectors: in 1504, before the artist’s departure for Florence, she recommended the artist to the Gonfaloniere Pier Soderini. The estimated age of the lady portrayed is around 40, which would correspond to the same age of the Duchess Giovanna in 1505. Another element leading to her identification is the reference to the lady’s widowhood, being portrayed in a green dress and holding a handkerchief in her left hand, both symbols of mourning. Giovanna Feltria was widowed in 1501, when Giovanni della Rovere died.

Original locations: Between 1702-1710 the portrait is in the inventory of the Grand Ducal collections of Prince Francesco Ferdinando of Palazzo Pitti; until 1772 it is documented in the Medici Villa of Poggio a Caiano, before being moved to the Tribuna in the Uffizi Gallery.


Artistic technique

Oil painting on panel.

The support consists of a single board of linden wood. Although Raphael generally used poplar wood for the supports of his paintings, linden was used also for the portraits of Agnolo and Maddalena Doni and for La Gravida. The ground and paint layers leave uncovered portions at the upper and lower edges. This feature, also observed in the painting La Gravida, could be due to use of of wooden slats applied onto the support, allowing the artist to support and handle the support during the pictorial execution. 

The ground layer consists of two very thin layers of gypsum and animal glue; their thinness can be perceived in raking light, under which it is possible to observe the wooden fibres. There is also a priming layer of animal glue making the gesso ground less absorbent, thus preventing the penetration of the binder of the paint layers.

Thanks to the infrared reflectogram, it was possible to visualize the preparatory drawing, thus investigating the underdrawing used by Raphael in this case. The examination revealed the use of different techniques for transposing the image: in addition to the use of a cartoon for the spolvero, which Raphael mainly uses, it was also possible to observe a freehand drawing, realized with charcoal or a tool with a dry, thin tip, maybe a quill, or according to some, also a metal-tipped stylus. Raphael sketched the composition freehand, tracing the essential features of the face, the dress and sleeves, leaving the definition of the figure’s character and her details to the painting phase.

The reflectogram reveals several changes and afterthoughts related to the drawing phase: there are variations for example in the right eye, in the puffed sleeve of the lady’s blouse on her left shoulder, in the dress, in the veil, in the profile of the shoulder and in both the ribbons tying the sleeves to the bodice.


Conservation Conditions and Intervention

In the OPD’s first inspection on the artwork in Urbino, in June 2012, it was immediately assessed that the painting was fragile and delicate, due to the thinness of its wooden support and due to a consistent woodworm infestation, which had created many burrows in the panel and many exit holes on the painted surface. The conditions of the panel were aggravated due to the lack of a supporting structure. Although the support presented a convex warping (observing the painted surface), it could be however considered intact in terms of size and thickness. Following the inspection, recommendations were given in view of the possible loan of the painting at exhibitions, including an exhibition held in Japan in 2013, to which La Muta went on loan.

In view of the artwork’s journey, the painting was transferred to the OPD laboratory, for a more suitable insertion into its frame. As there were gaps between the panel and the frame that could cause dangerous movements, the gaps were filled in by applying a wooden structure made of four poplar wood slats, thus creating a containing and supporting structure. On the upper and lower edges, along the unpainted areas of the painting, two thin supporting strips of wood were inserted, covered with a material that acts as a cushioning layer.

At the end of the exhibition in Japan, the painting returned to the OPD Restoration Laboratories in January 2014, for a more thorough intervention. On this occasion the intervention involved both the wooden support and the paint layers. The panel was treated against woodworm with anoxia and was subsequently protected with permethrin, to protect the panel from being once more infested.  

The intervention on the paint layers was preceded by a preliminary study on the conservation interventions of the twentieth century and by a series of diagnostic investigations that evidenced the artwork’s various conservation issues. A first observation in raking light allowed to detect the presence of small blisters of paint layers along the direction of the wooden fibres. A few depressions of the painted surface had formed in correspondence of the many woodworm burrows, and thick layers of yellowed varnish covered the pictorial surface. The UV Fluorescence investigation allowed to detect many retouched areas beneath the thick varnish.

After this first study and diagnostic phase, the cleaning intervention was started, proceeding gradually and in a differentiated manner on the various colour fields, in order to retrieve a correct chromatic balance for the painting. Only after this initial cleaning intervention it was possible to assess the overall conservation condition, finding more than one hundred woodworm exit holes that had been filled during previous restorations with various materials such as wax, wax and resin, gypsum and animal glue and then retouched. In addition, the cleaning obtained important results in the retrieval of the painting’s palette, regaining space and depth, allowing the figure to stand out more from the dark background. Having carefully cleaned the exit holes and protected the surrounding paint layers with Japanese tissue, the woodworm galleries were first filled; the losses were then filled with gesso.

After a first application of varnish, the inpainting was carried out first with watercolours, then with varnish-medium paints. The inpainting was carried out only on the small lacunae on certain areas of the face, neck and décolleté, upon which the thin pictorial film was worn. Finally, a further spray application of varnish completed the intervention.

In March 2015, the work was definitively placed in a frame. This operation involved the creation of profiled wooden strips, which adapt the warping of the panel to the frame and rest on the unpainted part of the painting. The painting was then fixed in its frame with a double elastic system, consisting in two strips of wood each one controlled by adjustable two springs. The spring system allows a moderate control of the movements of the panel which, thanks to the wooden strips, is distributed over the entire width of the panel. The protection of the artwork was then completed with a special anti-reflection and UV-resistant glass on the front; a sheet of plywood was inserted upon the back, to act like a barrier, protecting the painting from the external environment.


Summary Colophon

Raffaello Sanzio
La Muta,1506-1507; Oil on panel; 64 x 48 cm
Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino

Director of the Restoration: Marco Ciatti

Technical Direction and Intervention
Paint layers: Francesca Ciani Passeri and Patrizia Riitano
Wooden panel: Ciro Castelli and Andrea Santacesaria
Frame: Maria Cristina Gigli (Wooden Sculpture Department)

Scientific investigations
Alfredo Aldrovandi (O.P.D.), Ottavio Ciappi: X-radiograph
Carlo Galliano Lalli, Giancarlo Lanterna, Isetta Tosini (O.P.D.), Federica Innocenti: X-ray Fluorescence, Chemical analyses (FT-IR, SEM/EDS)
Marco Barucci, Raffaella Fontana, Enrico Pampaloni, Marco Raffaelli, Jana Striova (CNR/INO): Optical Coherence Tomography, Scanning Microprofilometry
Franco Casali (Centro Studi e Ricerche Enrico Fermi, Rome), Matteo Bettuzzi, Rosa Brancaccio, Maria Pia Morigi, Eva Peccenini (Università di Bologna -Dipartimento di Fisica e Astronomia; Rete CHNet-INFN-Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare; Centro Studi e Ricerche Enrico Fermi, Rome): Tomography analysis
Magdalena Iwanicka (Institute for the Study, Restoration and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, Faculty of fine Arts, Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń, Poland), Marcin Sylwestrzak, Piotr Targowski (Institute of Physics, Astronomy and Informatics Nicolaus Copericus University, Toruń, Poland): Optical Coherence Tomography
Chiara Ruberto, Anna Mazzinghi, Lisa Castelli, Caroline Czelusniak, Mirko Massi, Lara Palla (Rete CHNet-INFN-Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare): X-ray Fluorescence Scanning
Roberto Bellucci (O.P.D.): Multi-NIR Reflectography

Video of the OPD Youtube channel on the intervention