The truth about Spanish art's most famous love story

It was thought to be one of the most romantic love affairs in the history of Spanish art, but the liaison between the rough and ready genius Francisco de Goya and the beautiful, capricious Duchess of Alba, the grandest grandee in Spain, has now been described as an "urban legend".

According to a new book by Manuela Mena, a Goya specialist at the Prado museum, in Madrid, the social gulf between the two was never bridged. "It was an inequality he tried to overcome, but as an artist, not a lover," she said.

Goya painted the duchess, Cayetana de Silva, several times, and she is said to have modelled for his twin "Majas" (beauties), one naked and one clothed, which are considered among the most erotic portraits in modern art.

The naked Maja offers the first example of female pubic hair in painting, but many consider the clothed version even more erotic. Her face is not that of the duchess, but the body bears close comparison to the delicate curves in the other painting.

Goya also painted two important formal portraits of the duchess, one clad in white, the other in black, that were reunited for the first time in years at a Prado exhibition celebrating Spanish portraiture in 2004. In one of them, the duchess wears two rings, bearing the names Alba and Goya, and points to the artist's signature at her feet.

While researching an essay on the works, Ms Mena came upon a letter written by the duchess to her cousin, Carlos Pignatelli, "that showed her sadness and grief following the death of [her husband] the duke," she said.

Far from turning to Goya in her grief, the duchess treated him like other members of her court, "like the librarian, the doctor or the butler," Ms Mena said this week, presenting her book, The Duchess of Alba, Goya's Muse: Myth and History. Ms Mena concedes that Goya's portraits "bring out the best in her: attractive, spectacular, full of power," but concludes: "I don't think he was in love with her."

The couple's supposed romance has inspired novels, films and academic studies, including works produced by the Prado itself. Ms Mena's bucket of cold water seems unlikely to douse the speculation.

The couple met when the duchess was a teenager, and they came to know each other well. Goya made many visits to her palaces to paint. In 1739, her husband, the duke, died aged 39. His widow, then 34, radiantly beautiful and at the peak of her social success, retired to the family estate in Sanlucar de Barrameda, near Cadiz, and invited Goya.

He stayed from July 1797 until the following March, and produced his most intimate portraits of his patron - taking siestas cuddling her adopted black daughter and teasing her maid. Two years later, the "Majas" appeared. Few will want to discard their "mythical" romance.

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