La Grande Bellezza and Raphael's Elusive Muse

October 7, 2013

Beauty awakens the soul to act

Our experience of art is invariably personal, and undoubtedly subjective. How we process a painting, sculpture or film is dependent on myriad factors from our own past and present, and includes elements of prior knowledge and experience of language, images and sound.

I would like to use this post to explore my experience of the Paolo Sorrentino film La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), which I saw recently as part of an Italian Film Festival. I have no intention of providing an exhaustive synopsis, but will recommend the film to lovers of Italian art and culture, and to aesthetes in general. The film may also be of particular interest to writers, as the main character is a writer, who having had success with a single novel early in his career, has spent most of his life as a columnist and socialite living among Roman high society.

The film allows us to experience the peculiar existence of Jep Gambardella, who is portrayed wonderfully by Toni Servillo. Jep is revered as a writer and influential social figure in Rome, yet in much of what he does, there is an undeniable sense of his being an isolated observer. The most honest conversations he seems to have are with his foreign housemaid, and his dwarf editor. In my own experience as a writer - in this case a blogger on art historical subjects -  I found this detached and reflective aspect of the main character's experiences quite resonant.

Revealed in a series of flashbacks scattered throughout the film, Jep reflects on a formative experience from his youth - when at age 18 he was captivated by a woman named Elisa. In a beautifully filmed scene, shot on a clifftop near a lighthouse, Elisa reveals The Great Beauty of her topless form to young Jep. This seemed the most pivotal scene of the film - with the young writer's witnessing of Elisa's physical beauty, and the experience of her kiss, we understand that The Great Beauty is Jep's muse.

Despite this magical encounter, we learn that Elisa had ended up settling with another man, though in a diary entry (discovered by Elisa's husband after her death), we learn that Jep was the only man she had ever loved.  This bittersweet revelation was delivered to Jep at 65 years of age, almost 50 years after that formative experience near the lighthouse.

The film is littered with many scenes highlighting the beauty of Italy, and Rome. One particularly memorable sequence shows Jep and his ailing girlfriend being taken on a tour of private palatial properties in Rome. These scenes reveal beautiful artworks to Jep and his friend, contrasting the immortal quality of the beauty in art with the more transient and fragile beauty present in the human form.

Making a cameo in one of these palaces was none other than Raphael's La Fornarina, which the credits reveal had been loaned from the Galleria Nazionale in Rome. I found the inclusion of this portrait quite touching. As the core of the film is about the writer's muse being an elusive beauty which served as a wellspring for his talent - La Fornarina represents a similar force in Raphael's short yet tumultuous life. 

The portrait is believed to depict Raphael's mistress, Margerita Luti, and is commonly called La Fornarina or "The Baker's daughter" on account of Vasari's description of her as the daughter of a baker from Siena. Although actual documentary evidence of Margerita Luti is scant, it is popularly believed that she was Raphael's muse and mistress. Her likeness appears in pivotal works completed during Raphael's Roman phase, including the Sistine Madonna (now in Dresden) and La Donna Velata (The Veiled Beauty), now at the Pitti Palace in Florence.

La Fornarina, The Sistine Madonna and La Donna Velata are 3 famous Raphael works believed to depict his mistress and muse Margerita Luti.

Luti may have been Raphael's mistress, but she could never completely be a part of the artist's life as he was officially betrothed to the niece of Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi of Bibbiena. In this sense, the parallels with the writer in La Grande Bellezza and Raphael are interesting to contemplate. One can only wonder at the director's intention for including this work in this sequence in a film about love and creative inspiration. Given my own past experience, and knowledge about Raphael, my reception of this sequence in the film was invariably skewed in this particular, and admittedly subjective direction. 

I would be curious to hear from others who have seen this film and how they interpreted this sequence. 

Stay tuned to 3PP in the near future for a complete case study on the astoundingly beautiful La Fornarina, which reveals surprising details about the painting's provenance and distinctive "signed"  armband.

Relevant links
IMDB entry for La Grande Bellezza - includes trailer, synopsis, reviews link
Vasari's Life of Raphael - searchable pdf of DeVere translation of 1568/9 Edition link

Image sources
Images from La Grande Bellezza by Gianni Forito, sourced from Mongrel media website link
Raphael images sourced from

Special Thank-You
The author would like to thank the delightful Leanne for her charming company during this sublime experience  Xx


Ana The Zeka said...

Well, I'm definitely inspired to watch the Bellezza.

I hope it makes its way to one of our film festivals.

Edward Goldberg said...

Thanks for the preview! I am very eager to see "La Grande Bellezza". The cosmic-mystic-symbolic appearance of the "Fornarina" is certainly intriguing--but I can only wonder about the prudence of removing a five hundred year old work on panel from the Galleria Nazionale in Palazzo Barberini and sending it over to a film shoot. However, I assume that there was a significant quid pro quo to the soprintendenza and one could always argue that the temperature and humidity controls at Cinecittà (or wherever) could hardly be worse than at the home museum. In regard to the "Fornarina" and beauty messaging, I remember that the restoration of the picture about 15 years ago was paid for by the cosmetics empress Estèe Lauder.

Robert.D said...

Good Morning.
I,.m very glad your erudite and enjoyable articles appear again after a long recess.
A little question
You write Raphael was engaged to cardinal Bibbiena s daughter.
Was it not his niece.?
Or was she his natural daughter called his niece as clerici often did with their offspring.
kind regards

Hasan Niyazi said...

well spotted Robert, It was indeed his niece. Serves me right for posting at the wee hours of the morning!

Cyril Bogd said...

Thank you very much for recommendation! Great film that is full of symbols and reminiscenses - as abstract ones and pesonal too. It's difficult to imagine such insight and aesthetique impact from cinema art of current epoque. Very grateful for you!

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