In the early sixteenth century Felice della Rovere became the most powerful woman in Rome and arguably the most independently wealthy woman in Italy. A natural daughter of Pope Julius II, she was cultured, ambitious and beautiful and was a favourite at the Vatican court from 1505 until the Pope's death in 1513. In 1506 she married the Roman aristocrat Gian Giordano Orsini, by whom she had two sons and two daughters.

On the reverse flap of canvas overlapping the Tondo's stretcher appears the word 'felic' (or 'Felic') in an ornate script which a graphologist has dated to a style in vogue in the 1700's or earlier. Consequently, and in the light of precedents during the Renaissance whereby artists have depicted their powerful Italian family patrons as Sacra Famiglia, Dr Lothian argues that Felice della Rovere is the model for the Madonna in the Tondo (and by extension the Sistine Madonna) and that the Christ Child is her son [1]. An alternative view is that the rendering may be symbolic as to a possible association between Felice and the Tondo Madonna. She must have been well known to Raphael, who was a member of the inner circle of the Vatican court from 1508.

Raphael's circle included Cardinal Bibbiena, the all-powerful treasurer at the Vatican during Leo X's pontificate, to whose niece Maria Raphael was later betrothed. On 8 November 1520 (seven months after Raphael's death) Cardinal Bibbiena bequeathed to their mutual close friend Baldassare Castiglione "a square piece of cloth (sic) by the hand of Raphael", depicting the Madonna. Less than two months later it is recorded, in a letter from Castiglione to his mother in Mantua, that he was sending to her a very precious Raphael Madonna painting. Both paintings are unidentified. Lothian propounds that they are one and the same painting and that the reference to a square piece of cloth indicates that it was not a formally mounted or framed painting, an apt description of the Tondo, a circular image on a square canvas. Cardinal Bibbiena, in making the bequest, would have been aware of Castiglione's strong personal affection for Felice, a sentiment which is recorded in correspondence.

Castiglione's own portrait by Raphael - and perhaps other works precious to him - was ultimately transferred by his next-of-kin in Mantua to the ownership of the Duke of Urbino, with whose Court both Raphael and Castiglione had earlier enjoyed a close relationship. The Duke's collection was partly bequeathed and partly sold after his death in 1631. This was at the time when Cardinal Barberini, as the coordinator of the policy, was collecting work throughout Italy from public and private collections and remitting artefacts to England, to bolster the faith of Queen Henrietta Maria in the advancement of the cause of the Vatican.

  1. In keeping with the above-mentioned Renaissance custom of artists honouring the patron and their family by their depiction within the painting, such a picture would more likely be revered as a private devotional icon, once the patron was no longer in power (for example, following the death of the della Rovere Pope Julius II).
  2. [Note: The de Brécy Trust is greatly indebted to Professor Caroline P Murphy, Associate Professor of Renaissance Art at the University of California, Riverside, for her advice and editorial review of this page. Professor Murphy is author of the internationally critically-acclaimed book about Felice della Rovere entitled 'The Pope’s Daughter' (Faber, 2004)]