The Ruby Ring by Diane Haeger is a historical fiction romance inspired by a painting of Raphael's called La Fornarina (The Baker's Daughter). A ruby ring was discovered having been painted over on this work, and this novel takes that mystery and explores it, through a passionate and tragic love affair between the great painter and a common baker's daughter.
Raphael is at the height of his fame, with more commissions than he has time to fulfill, even with a studio full of assistants. He is constantly being pressured by all sides to work faster, by powerful bankers, political figures, and even the church. While each believes they should be the top priority, Raphael is obssessed with another work, a Madonna that he wants to find the perfect model for, but which he has searched for fruitlessly, letting other works languish. He finds his inspiration passing by on the street one day, in Margherita, out for a walk with her sister's son on her hip. Raphael knows immediately that she is the one, and asks to paint her, but she refuses, at first not believing that he is the great Rafaello, and still later, even after being shown he is indeed who he says he is. Her family finally convince her that it would be in all their best interests for her to go, and with her brother in law as escort, she goes to Raphael's studio to agree.
Pushed by her family, and confronted with Raphael's own obsessive feelings for her, she can no longer fight her own attraction to him, even though he is betrothed to the niece of a cardinal to whom Raphael owes much. The story is tragic, ending as it began with Raphael's death and Margherita's interment into a convent. It is the tragic story of two people who though finding love with each other, are reminded again and again that their lives are not their own, as factions who look down on her as a commoner try to tear the two apart, believing her to be a bad influence and a distraction from his painting. It is painfully clear that Raphael is valued not for himself as a person, but merely for the work he can produce to immortalize his patrons. Margherita is the one person who makes no such demands on him, and so she is the one person he is inspired to paint.
I really enjoyed this story, sad though it's ending was, it was still beautiful, and I wanted the two of them to find happiness so much! I've already picked up another of Diane Haeger's books, The Secret Bride: In the Court of Henry VIII about Mary Tudor, a sister of Henry VIII.
For more information on the author and her books see her website: Diane Haeger