“I have been in love a great many times,” said Byron, “but I always had a low opinion of women.”
This remark from such a man as Byron startled me, and I could not avoid expressing my surprise, adding, “that such a declaration would not be believed by his fair readers.”
But he persisted in the assertion and asked me if I thought Raphael had a very exalted notion of the sex, because he painted so many graceful and engaging female figures.
“As proof of his actual taste and discernment in female matters,” added Byron, “look at his Fornarina, the idol of his affections, a strapping country hoyden–as fat. coarse and unsentimental in looks as one could desire.”
— Conversations of an American with Lord Byron, Museum of Foreign Literature, Science and Art, Vol. 27 (1835)
Raphael’s “Young Woman” is, according to tradition, the Roman Margherita Luti, the painter’s mistress and a bakeress. I’ll grant you the headdress does not typically call to mind such an occupation but a hoyden?
It is revealing that it is not her nakedness or apparent lack of modesty Byron finds objectionable. He disdains her size (strapping) and rustic attributes. She is unrefined and even running to fat.
Curious that he leaves the term “unsentimental” for the last of his condemnation. This is the worst of anything he can say about her. She is obviously a hoyden and therefore lacking in sentiment. Or is it that she looks unsentimental and is therefore a hoyden?
Byron was a romantic. His literary works held sway during the Regency and influenced taste toward “intuition and emotion.” This was partly a reaction against the past which valued the rational and the objective (the boring).
In a glance, Byron could perceive in the rustic a hoyden nature which had no appreciation for the fine arts and social graces. Recall his low opinion of women. Perhaps none of them could achieve his artist’s exquisite perception of what is good. He compares himself to Raphael in this instance.
Byron wasn’t personally acquainted with La Fornarina. For all he knew, she might have been able to translate Latin to her native Italian. But since she was a hoyden, in either appearance or sentiment, she was worthy of low opinion.
Never mind that she could bake a cake.