Simonetta Vespucci is a name commonly associated with both the Medici family of Florence and the artist Sandro Botticelli. For years, people have believed that Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” is actually a painting of Florence’s most beautiful woman – she was said to have stunned Botticelli with her beauty which is why the same face pops up over and over again in his paintings. These days many art historians say that this is actually because Botticelli’s workers (is that the word for them?) actually painted them based on the portrait of the ideal woman – whether or not that’s the case, I quite like the idea that the artist was so taken with her beauty that he wanted to get her in as many of his paintings as possible.
But who was Simonetta Vespucci, and what was it about her that seemed to have the people of Florence either wanting to BE her or to BE WITH her?
Simonetta was born in the mid 1450’s to Gaspare Cattaneo and Cattochia Spinola although her exact place of birth is unknown. Some say she was born in Genoa whilst others say that she was born in Portovenere, where Venus herself appeared from the waves – this may be due to the belief that she was indeed the model for Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. But wherever she was born, at the age of around sixteen she was married to Marco Vespucci and the two moved to Florence.
It wouldn’t be long until the young woman caught the eye of the Florentine populace – she particularly caught the eye of both Giuliano de’ Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent’s ill fated younger brother) as well as many local artists including Botticelli. In the January of 1475, Giuliano held a joust in the Piazza Santa Croce which he dedicated to her. For his banner he carried a painting of the beautiful young woman painted by none other than Sandro Botticelli himself. When Giuliano won the tournament, Simonetta was crowned Queen of the Joust. It is said that Simonetta became Giuliano’s mistress, although given the fact that Marco Vespucci was close to the Medici family it seems somewhat unlikely that the two had a sexual relationship.
Just one year later, however, tragedy struck during the Spring of 1476. Simonetta Vespucci was struck down with a life threatening illness. Lorenzo the Magnificent, who was in Pisa at the time, insisted on receiving daily updates about the state of her health and sent his own personal physicians to her when he found out her health was on the decline. But his efforts came to little and the great Florentine beauty passed away on April 26th. It is said that the entire city was struck down in grief at her passing. Following her death, Simonetta’s father in law sent Giuliano some of the gowns that she had worn – a sign of just how much the young Medici felt about her, perhaps?
It was a sad end for a young woman cut down in the prime of her youth and beauty. Her open coffin was paraded through the streets of Florence for the populace to be able to see her beauty for one last time. She was buried in the Church of Ognissanti, the parish Church of the Vespucci and perhaps somewhat tellingly, Sandro Botticelli requested to be buried there upon his death.
Miles J Unger – Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’ Medici
Claudio Angelini – The Mystery of Simonetta
Christopher Hibbert – Florence: The Biography of a City
Christopher Hibbert – The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici
Paul Strathern – The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance