'La Donna' Lives Up to the Hype

Debra Brehmer

La Donna Velata. To utter her name is to unleash a whispered intimacy. If you haven’t heard, this woman has arrived in our city as a celebrity, an heiress, a most important persona.

She is a painting created by Raphael in 1516.

The Milwaukee Art Museum is staging a one-painting exhibition of this portrait through June 6. It is a painting famous enough to command a solo show.

But why, really, should we pay our admission fee and meet this dark-eyed enchantress in her fabricated salon? Is this painting really so special? Well, I have to say, yes, it is.

“La Donna Velata,” or “Woman with a Veil,” is much like any portrait of a pretty aristocrat. It is all artifice – contrived, invented, designed – but one small difference lies in the fact that Raphael was considered the greatest painter of the Renaissance. When your colleagues are Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, that is quite a reputation.

Raphael was the golden boy of the group. He was not ill-kempt like Michelangelo, and he was not anti-social and always late like Leonardo. Raphael was the court dandy. He was good-looking, charming and he could paint like an angel.

While Michelangelo was lovesick as he courted Tomasso (a young aristocrat who never returned his advances) and Leonardo was watching the paint peel off the refectory wall in Milan (now known as “The Last Supper”) our pretty boy Raphael was holding court in Rome. Michelangelo, eight years his senior, had locked himself in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican to paint the ceiling. Just down the hall, in the pope’s library, Raphael was painting his now famous “School of Athens“ fresco. Michelangelo was so paranoid that this young upstart would steal his ideas that he insisted the doors to the Sistine be locked and guarded.

Raphael ended up getting the last laugh, however, as he painted Michelangelo in the role of Hericlitus, hunched and brooding, in the center of “School of Athens,” an in-joke for all the centuries. When Raphael died on April 6, 1520, of influenza at age 37, all of Rome mourned. That year marked the end of the Renaissance.

The Renaissance was a time of intellectualizing, trying to figure out how to indulge in the sensory pleasures of the world and still not be a sinner. Beauty was interpreted and presented in mathematical terms influenced by ancient Greek philosophy – proportions, restraint, harmonies, ratios. It was undeniably a time when skill, intellect and emotion fell into perfect balance. And this is what we see in “La Donna Velata.”

The sitter of this great portrait is thought to be Raphael’s lover Margherita Luti. But like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (1503-06), the identity is secondary to the probability that both artists painted these female portraits as broad interpretations of “ideal beauty.” And that is why both portraits are so great: They transcend the specificity of identity and speak of greater truths.

The Pitti Palace in Florence, which owns the portrait, downplays the “romantic” subtext that this might be Raphael’s lover. And that’s the better approach. It allows the painting to be a painting rather than a footnote to someone’s sexual fantasies.

When you arrive at the Milwaukee Art Museum in search of “La Donna Velata,” you will need to fight your way through a thicket of wall text before you enter her chamber. Put your blinders on. Do not read this text. It will simply overwhelm and dull your brain and detract from the physicality of the painting. Also, do not watch the 12-minute video. While it is nicely informative, the tone is tutorial. Save it for after you commune with the painting.

La Donna’s private room is painted a beautiful dusk blue and is dramatically dark. With spotlights to set it aglow, the painting sits in a huge, thickly carved dimensional gold frame. The painting is larger than its diminutive counterpart, the “Mona Lisa,” and even behind glass feels accessible and very present.

If it’s not too crowded, you can stand close and take in the details. La Donna stares doe-eyed directly at the viewer. She is neither demure nor confrontational, but simply poised. A long veil frames her soft, round face and sweeps down her body, curling in on the right side to give the painting depth.

One can think of Raphael’s composition like music. It begins in perfect repose (grazia) and then gains momentum until the bottom sleeve erupts in virtuosic froth. In the “Mona Lisa,” Leonardo uses the sleeve pattern to mimic the pathways and rivers in nature, connecting humanity to primordial earth. Raphael’s sleeve has no such philosophical ambition. It is a court dance. He is entertaining us. He can paint skin, amber, rubies, silk, brocade or hair with equal finesse. Indeed, he lets a few gossamer strands of hair fall loose onto La Donna’s brow to emphasize a sense of touch, to make us feel the tender poetry of the painting.

La Donna looks to be about 14, the age of marriage, a time when innocence and youth take on the first womanly glimmer of sensuality.

If it is true, as commonly thought in the Renaissance, that great art can bring us closer to God, then Raphael hits a chord here. “La Donna Velata” is both of this world and beyond it in her glory. Perhaps never again has such a point of mastery been reached in one painting.

One slightly ironic note is that while “La Donna Velata” is visiting Milwaukee, her home in Florence, the Pitti Palace, is hosting a Robert Mapplethorpe show. In a way, Mapplethorpe was equally engaged in seeking ultimate beauty within a homo-erotic context. But that’s another story.