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  • nycpelley

La Fornarina

Updated: Feb 12, 2022

When I see two disparate objects, I like to ask what is the connection? That's just the way I am. That's how my mind works, always trying to find the relationships, trying to make sense and order out of my daily chaos.

Piazza di Sant' Apollonia is a tiny piazza in the Trastevere section of Rome, where the church and attached convent of Sant' Apollonia, now long since gone, once existed. The urban fabric retains the name and an apartment block built in 1888 incorporates remnants and follows the footprint of the demolished convent and church. When I moved into an apartment in the Palazzo Leoni-Pizzirani which looms over the diminutive piazza, there were a few items left behind by the previous tenant. One item, lone on a shelf, was a bag of flour.

As I unpacked and settled in, organizing, sorting and arranging the space, my mind, that ever restless extension of self, fretted unsettled over this bag of flour and its relationship to the piazza below me.

They say that Raphael fell in love with a baker's daughter who lived in the neighborhood – maybe on Vicolo del Cedro, maybe on Via di Santa Dorotea, while working on a commission decorating the filthy rich 1%er Agostini Chigi's Villa Farnesina a couple hundred meters away.

Raphael was obsessed with her. He painted her portrait. The eyes are twinkling, hesitant to make direct contact with the viewer, the lips are full with just a twitch of a knowing smile. The shoulders and breasts are bare, a diaphanous whatever held without conviction between her right hand and the left breast which she gently fingers, falls with a few cascading folds over her naked tummy. The rich coral colored dress has slumped from the upper half of her body, clumping around the waist. Her legs, (the only things) concealed by the voluminous folds, are slightly parted, her hand resting on her pudenda with fingers splayed, pushing apart the folds in what can only be construed as a beckoning gesture. Yes, it is as I described it... it's 16th century porn.

They say that Chigi was so exasperated that Raphael kept skipping out to dally with the baker's daughter, that he had her installed at the Villa. There is also a tradition that says that Raphael had rooms in the little piazza outside my door. The whirlwind romance did not last for long. Within a year, Raphael was dead at the age of 37. The baker's daughter “retired” to the convent of Sant' Apollonia where she lived out her life in the cloister.

My mind relaxed. Like an Umberto Eco novel, it had found connection and meaning between place and thing. Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly for those of you who believe nothing is completely random) the connection goes farther than a bag of flour and the baker's daughter. There was at the time of Raphael a tiny church in the piazza dedicated to San Cristoforo, my namesake and patron saint. That church was demolished when Sant' Apollonia was rebuilt and enlarged in 1582, but an ancient fresco of Christopher was saved and lingered on in the new complex.

Armed with this knowledge I was motivated to take action. I used the bag of flour to remember La Fornarina in the piazza. In the end though, like the church and convent, all was swept away.

Christopher Pelley "La Fornarina" temporary installation, flour, Piazza di S Apollonia

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