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La Bella Simonetta


Madonna Venus
Botticelli's Madonna and Venus
were both inspired by the famous
Florentine beauty, Simonetta Vespucci.

Botticelli's Renaissance Super-model

by Darla Goodroad
(December, 2007)

Even Heidi Klum cannot hold a candle to the ageless influence Simonetta Vespucci has had on the shaping of the Renaissance. Born in an obscure village, married at 15, and dead at 22, her short but sweet life inspired one of the greatest artists of Renaissance and the wealthiest men in the world.

She arrived in Florence, the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, as a fifteen-year old bride, but within a few short years Simonetta Cattaneo de Vespucci would catapult to fame as the most beautiful woman in Italy, beloved of an entire city.

Lorenzo de Medici

Lorenzo de Medici
powerful Florentine
banker and art paton.

Self-portrait

Self Portrait
Sandro Botticelli.

In 1469, the city of Florence was entering its golden age of power and influence. Young Lorenzo de Medici, called the Magnificent, and his brother Guiliano had just taken the reins of the Medici house upon the death of their father Piero. Although the Medicis did not openly rule in the city, everyone knew to whom the government of Florence answered. Lorenzo’s grandfather Cosimo had begun the tradition of installing puppet leaders in the city council of Florence, and the de Medici brothers continued to hold influence over many rulers of state through their control over loans to governments and their own private army.

Guliano was a a sportsman who was not interested in running the family business. Lorenzo enjoyed power and banking and used his great wealth to surround himself with the finest painters, sculptors, poets, philosophers, and intellectuals of his day—among them, Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, and Botticelli. The prolific artist, Sandro Botticelli, whose masterpieces include The Birth of Venus, Venus and Mars, and Primavera, studied art alongside Leonardo da Vinci in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio during the 1460s. Botticelli received his first artistic commission in 1470, and within three years he was commissioned to paint frescoes at Pisa cathedral. Already on his way to becoming a well-known artist, Botticelli still had not met his muse… that is, until the arrival of his next-door-neighbor’s pretty new wife.

Simonetta

Simonetta
by Sandro Botticelli.

Simonetta Cattaneo married Marco Vespucci—cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer for whom the New World was named—at the age of fifteen, and followed her new husband to his home in Florence. Her birthplace is a matter of some dispute: Some say Genoa, but others point to Portovenere, supposedly the place where the goddess Venus stepped from the sea. Did stories of Simonetta's origins inspire Botticelli to create the Birth of Venus as an homage to her goddess-like beauty?

Certainly she was Botticelli’s Venus. The artist fell hopelessly in love with Simonetta, who often posed for him in the nude. Her long, swan-like neck, straight aristocratic nose, and flowing golden hair were the model on which many of his masterworks were based. In La Bella Simonetta, Botticelli had met his muse. He painted Simonetta over and over again, even years after her death.

Simonetta as Cleopatra

Simonetta Vespucci
as Cleopatra
by Piero de Cosimo.

Botticelli wasn’t the only artist to paint Simonetta. She sat for Piero de Cosimo and others as well. She became the Renaissance equivalent of Marilyn Monroe and, though she was married, besotted noblemen lavished her with gifts and parties, poets and musicians wrote about her and for her. Artists competed for her time as a model. She enchanted all of Florence, perhaps all of Italy, with her loveliness and vibrancy. She was linked to both of the Medici brothers; however, there is no evidence that she gave herself to anyone. She sat at the left-hand of power, wealth, and culture in Renaissance Florence, and her ethereal beauty had such an effect on the makers of art in Florence that she became the standard by which beauty was measured, thereby influencing the works of Michelangelo and da Vinci, and countless thousands of other artists to this day.

Joust

Joust in Florence, 1555
Tournament in the main square.

Her arrival coincided with the ascendance of Lorenzo and Guiliano de Medici, and her rise to fame is closely tied to the Medicis, whom she met through Botticelli. Simonetta’s beauty and charm enchanted the Medici brothers nearly as much as it did Botticelli. The Birth of Venus, in which Simonetta modeled the famous nude goddess, was commissioned to hang in Lorenzo’s conjugal bedchamber. Guiliano fought in her name at a jousting tournament in 1475, carrying a banner that bore a picture of La Bella Simonetta under the phrase La Sans Pareille—The Unparelled One—that was painted by Botticelli. Guiliano won the tournament and, it is said, the heart of the fair Simonetta.

Venus

Detail from the
Temptation of Moses

by Sandro Botticelli

The fame and lavish attention was not to last. Simonetta Vespucci, beloved of all Florence, contracted a lung disease and died of consumption exactly one year to the day after the joust where Guiliano was named the winner and she was named "Queen of Beauty." She was only twenty-two years old.

Florence reeled in shock at the passing of their famous "Queen of Beauty." Thousands of mourners traveled from all over Italy to walk in her funeral procession. Women wept over the romantic misfortune of her brief life. Men mourned the passing of La Bella Simonetta, the flower of Florence. It is not recorded how Guiliano grieved, but he joined her two years later, assassinated in a plot known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, from which the elder Lorenzo barely escaped with his life.

Madonna

Detail from Madonna
with Pomegranate

by Sandro Botticelli.

No one, however, suffered as greatly from the loss of Simonetta as Botticelli. The artist was working on The Birth of Venus when Simonetta fell ill. Perhaps he felt responsible for her illness and couldn't bear to return to work on the painting right away. He would not finish the masterpiece for nine more years. Though he lived and continued to create great art for thirty-four years after her death, it is said that the young women in his paintings all bear a striking resemblance to his beloved muse. Whether he painted pagan goddesses or the mother of Jesus, Botticelli's women are recognizable portraits of Simonetta. You can find her in the high forehead, dimpled chin, pale eyes, golden hair worn in fantastic braids and curls, her long graceful neck, and curvaceous figure. After Lorenzo's death, Botticelli turned more to Christian religious subject matter. His devotion to Simonetta is evident in dozens of paintings of theVirgin Mary and the Magdalen, always painted with so much sadness in their eyes, as if to reflect the artist's own broken heart.

Botticelli never married. On his deathbed, he asked to be buried at Simonetta’s feet in the Chiesa d’Ognissanti, the chapel of the Vespucci family in Florence. His wish was granted, and he was laid to rest at Simonetta’s feet. Buried with the woman whose face and figure he immortalized as the epitome of Renaissance beauty, Sandro Botticelli was finally united in death with his tragic muse.

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