Raphael and the viceregina of Naples: the painting preserved in the Louvre

by Francesco Li Volti

The one in the painting by Raffaello preserved in the Louvre in Paris and which sees the viceregina Dona Isabel de Requesens y Enriquez de Velasco, wife of the viceroy of Sicily and Naples Raimondo di Cadorna, immortalized in 1518 on a 120 × 95 canvas, is one of the most fascinating mysteries of the art world.

The painting is called by the multitude "Raphael's Mona Lisa”And depicts the viceroy of Naples in her private rooms, probably inside Castel Nuovo, perhaps in the villa of Agostino Chigi in Rome or in the villa of Poggio Reale in Naples. He wears a very fine red velvet robe and a hat of the same finish, with jewels protruding.

The viceregina is 22 years old, she is young, beautiful and loved by the people. But for centuries, it was believed that the painting depicted Giovanna d'Aragnona, daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon, Duke of Montalto (in turn illegitimate son of King Ferrante) and of Castellana de Cardona (daughter of Isabel de Requensens in turn). Until, in 1997, the professor of Friborg Michael P. Fritz discovered that it was the viceregina of Naples, wife (in second marriage) of the viceroy Raimondo de Cardona. 

Raffaello e la viceregina di Napoli: il dipinto conservato al Louvre
Raphael - Dona Isabel de Requesens y Enriquez

The viceregina Isabel de Requesens

Isabel de Requesens seems to have been beautiful, so much so that hundreds of verses were dedicated to her by as many poets and artists. What we know about her is that she was the daughter of the first Earl of Palamós Galcerán de Requesens and Joan de Soler and the Castilian Beatriz Enríquez de Velasco, cousin of the King Ferdinand the Catholic.

Following her father's policy of alliances, Isabel married her first cousin Ramón Folch de Cardona-Anglesola, Duke of Soma and Count of Oliveto and Bellpuig.

On 11 May 1506 Ferdinand the Catholic approved the marriage, which had been granted in Salamanca on 16 January. At the end of that same year, in Naples, the celebrations took place in front of the king.

Some sources indicate that they had two children (Fernando and Catalina), others add a third, Antonio; finally, according to Marino Sanuto, they had four children, two boys and two girls: Antonio, the firstborn, who was mute, Maria (1507/1510) Beatrice (1511-1535) Fernando de Cardona-Anglesola y de Requesens (20 November 1521-1571), second Duke of Soma. He lived for a long time in the Requesens Palace in Barcelona, ​​a place that since 1917 has been the seat of the Real Academia de las Buenas Letras de Barcelona.

Isabel inherited the Italian titles of the counties of Trivento and Avellino, granted to his father for fighting alongside King Charles V, as well as the county of Palamós, the barony of Calonge and the lordship of Sant Feliu de Guíxols.

Legend has it that the leader Francisco d'Ávalos, husband of Vittoria Colonna, was fascinated by it, to the point that it is said that in a moment of audacity, during the celebration of a dinner, he dared to slide a magnificent necklace of pearls and precious stones along the neckline of the viceregina. The next day Isabel hastened to return the gift to Vittoria Colonna, who was her cousin. There is no doubt, based on the testimonies of her contemporaries, that Isabella was a great lady who conquered Naples and a great protector of the arts, contributing decisively with her momentum to the triumph of the Renaissance against the late Gothic.

When her husband died in 1522, he commissioned a mausoleum for his memory in convent of San Bartolomé in Bellpuig to the local sculptor Giovanni Merliano from Nola. The work is in white marble and the one from Carrara was used for the occasion: in Spain it is very famous and is one of the most important of its kind. In 1842, after the exclaustration, the mausoleum was transferred to the church of San Nicolás.

Ten years after her husband's death, on March 5, 1532, at the age of 36, Isabel de Requesens died in Naples. She was buried in the Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata Maggiore, but his grave disappeared during a fire in 1757, fueling even more that aura of mystery and fascination around his figure.

The whims of Francis I to have the viceregina

Let's rewind the tape and try to clarify why Raphael was interested in painting the viceregina of Naples, Isabel de Requesens. It all began when the cardinal Bernardo Dovizi from Bibbiena, already portrayed by Raphael and whose niece Marietta was to marry (but fell in love with the so-called Fornarina), with the rise of Pope Leo X he had become pro-French.

For this reason he moved for a short time to the French court of Francis I., womanizer and rival of the husband of Elizabeth's cousin of the viceregina of Naples, Ramon Folch de Cardona-Anglesola, in order to convince him to become emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Francis I was one of the first great French kings who understood the importance of art and culture. He had hosted Leonardo da Vinci in Amboise and shortly thereafter he would do everything to secure the jobs of Early, said Primatice or “il Bologna”, to refurbish the castle of Fontainebleau. Francesco I was a patron before being a king, and so he asked the cleric for a painting from his school by the famous artist and architect Raffaello Sanzio.

Bibbiena was immediately activated, sending Raphael the request to portray the very famous and beautiful viceregina of Naples, Dona Isabel. At that time Raphael was certainly the artist by far the most in demand, with a workshop that could count about fifty apprentices, and he used to make most of the clients wait, but not the cardinal.

Raphael, as can also be seen in "La Velata" of the Uffizi, was masterful in painting the drapery created by the fold of the sleeves and also in this case he demonstrates it. The puffed shirt with golden streaks appears from the dress, a wide neckline while a hand caresses the knee.

The great one arrived in France Holy Family, called Madonna Spinola, the Saint Michael defeating Satan and, precisely, the portrait of the viceregina of Naples. The panel was sent as a gift to the King of France on 10 August 1518.

Raphael or Giulio Romano?

It is also telling this story Giorgio Vasari, the painter and art historian who printed in 1550 Lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors, and architects. It is he who writes in black and white that Raphael took care of the drawing and painting the face of the viceregina Isabel and that one of his most famous students thought about completing the work, Giulio Romano.

However, it was Raphael himself who denied Vasari. In the accompanying letter to the painting sent to the Duke of Ferrara, Sanzio stated in no uncertain terms that the work had been painted entirely by one of his assistants, sent in a hurry and fury specifically to Naples. It was Giulio Romano, the number one of Raphael's pupils. In fact, recently, it has been established that the master also gave the painting some final touches.

The conditions of the work, however, they were never safe. The canvas has been compromised since 1540, when the first restoration was commissioned to Primaticcio, and in the 17th century, when it was torn from the panel to be placed on canvas. Due to these operations, the picture is constantly under observation. Today it is possible to admire it at Louvre Museum of Paris and on the description it says "Raffaello Sanzio and helpers (Giulio Romano)".

The painting is important because it inaugurates a genre, the so-called "device portrait”, Which will have many followers and will reach its full splendor with Titian e Velázquez. That is why many copies were reproduced which today are scattered in various palaces in Europe. The same Alfonso d'Este, who had saved Ferrara thanks to the love affair between the viceroy and “La Brognina”, commissioned Raphael to make a copy for him and the German princes had their wives represented with the clothes that Isabel wears in her portrait.

Raffaello e la viceregina di Napoli: il dipinto conservato al Louvre
Raphael- Self-portrait

A little curiosity

Angela Clayton, a young American with a passion for fashion, was also attracted to the painting, but above all to the subject. The girl managed to recreate the dress worn in the painting by the viceroy of Naples. The result? Here it is in these videos.


Vittorio Ricci, The enigma of a lady - The viceregina of Raphael's portrait, Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2022

Pierluigi De Vecchi, Raffaello, Rizzoli, Milan 1975

The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Giorgio Vasari, Newton and Compton, Rome, 2015

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