Simonetta Vespucci – The Florentine Beauty.

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Portrait of a woman, said to be Simonetta Vespucci, by Piero de Cosimo.

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.

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Birth of Venus detail. Photo by me.

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Could this be Simonetta Vespucci? Detail of Boticelli. Photo by me

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.

Further reading

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

 

26 April 1478 – The Pazzi Conspiracy

I must admit, I’m super excited to go to the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and see where the infamous Pazzi Conspiracy came to pass. Today’s post, as it’s 539 years ago to the day since it happened, is a throwback to a post I wrote on the conspiracy just before Christmas last year.

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Florence, by Georgio Vasari

On the 26th April 1478, as the host was raised within a crowded Santa Maria Del Fiore, carnage erupted. This moment was to be the finale of a conspiracy that had been concocted by the Pazzi family and their allies, in which the aim was to assassinate the two Medici brothers. But why did they want to kill them? The answer is mixed up in the politics of fifteenth century Florence along with what I can only describe as jealousy – although the Pazzi family were wealthy thanks to their work in the banking sector, they (and many others) watched as the Medici family scaled to the heights of Florentine politics through shrewd political machinations. In particular, Lorenzo De’ Medici had risen to the very top of the government and become the unofficial, defacto leader of Florence. As such, Lorenzo had power that many believed was becoming incredibly dangerous and absolute. Him and his family were obviously going to be the target for resentment, especially from a family such as the Pazzi who were old, well known nobility who had been shoved to the side thanks to a man they saw as an upstart.

It wasn’t just the Pazzi involved in the conspiracy, however. Lorenzo De’ Medici had gotten on the wrong side of the Pope one too many times – he had taken a dislike to the Pope’s choice for Archbishop of Pisa, Francesco Salviato, and had also taken umbridge to the fact that Girolamo Riario, Pope Sixtus’ nephew, had been given Imola in the aim of setting up a brand new papal state. It was all too close to home for Lorenzo, and his standing up against the Pope’s decisions ended up with the Pope backing the conspirators. It must be said, however, that Sixtus made the point of not endorsing murder outright. Instead he advised the conspirators to do whatever they had to do to remove Lorenzo from power. They took that as him condoning the assassination of the Medici brothers.

The original plan had been to assassinate Lorenzo and his brother, Giuliano, whilst the brother’s were visiting Rome. However the plan had to be rearranged when the two men decided against their visit to the Holy City. More plans were made, each of which were hampered by Giuliano De’ Medici falling ill – for example the second attempt was planned to happen during a lunch time meeting with the brothers at their villa in Fiesole, but with Giuliano unwell and unable to join them, they put the plans to bed.

Instead they planned to commit the double murder on 26th April 1478. It was to take place during Mass at the Santa Maria Del Fiore, during the elevation of the Host. There was only one problem – the man who had originally agreed to commit the murder, Federico Da Montefeltro, refused to commit murder upon holy ground. So two other priests were pulled in – they had no such qualms, and nor did the other conspirators. As the Host was raised, they attacked. Giuliano De’ Medici was stabbed multiple times by Bernardo Baroncelli and Francesco De’ Pazzi. And as the attack was happening to Giuliano, the attack began on Lorenzo. Except the conspirator standing behind the ruler of Florence made the mistake of reaching to steady himself on Lorenzo’s shoulder, thus alerting Lorenzo to what was about to happen. Lorenzo leapt away, his attackers knife thankfully only grazing his neck, and wrapped his cloak about his arm to act as a shield. In the chaos Poliziano, a close friend of the Medici family, rushed Lorenzo De’ Medici to safety within a room in the Sacristy.

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Giuliano De’ Medici by Sandro Boticelli

The conspirators had failed in their plan. Although Giuliano De’ Medici’s corpse lay upon the floor of the cathedral, they had failed to kill the leader of Florence and were now in significant danger. The reprisals started almost straight away. As the people fled the scene of bloodshed, Lorenzo and his allies went to the safety of the Medici palace. The city bells were rang and Jacopo De’ Pazzi rode into the main town square in an effort to stir up a revolution against the Medici. He failed miserably and was urged to flee the scene of the crime. Very quickly the conspirators were rounded up, some of them held as prisoners within the Palazzo Della Signoria. There, the bodies of both Bernardo Baroncelli, Francesco Salviati and Francesco De’ Pazzi were hung from the upper windows of the palace. Jacopo De’ Pazzi who had fled Florence after his failed attempt at riling up the popolo was caught and brought back – he was hung next to the corpse of Salviati.

The aftermath of Jacopo’s execution is particularly morbid. Although he was originally buried within the Pazzi crypt, many opposed the fact that this evil man was buried within consecrated ground. So he was moved outside the city. Except there, a group of children dug up his body and dragged it about the streets using the noose he had been hanged with. It’s a rather grim outcome, but one that sums up the popular feeling against the family who had caused such an uproar.

That Sunday in April of 1478 was an attack upon a family who, at the point, were well respected in Florence. That would change after Lorenzo’s death. But the murder of Giuliano De’ Medici was a tragedy, caused by the jealousy of a family who believed they were better than the Medici and who were looking for any excuse to get the Medici out of the way. The belief that the Medici family were going too far in the way of absolute power was something that would come back to haunt them just a few years down the line and, perhaps, it can be said that the attack by the Pazzi was the beginning of the end for the great Florentine family.

Further Reading

Lauro Martinez: April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici

Paul Strathern: The Medici: Godfather’s Of The Renaissance

Christopher Hibbert: The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici

Christopher Hibbert: Florence: Biography Of A City.