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

 

On This Day In History – Leonardo da Vinci is born.

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The Mona Lisa – Louvre Museum, Paris

On 15 April 1452, Leonardo da Vinci was born in the little town on Vinci, in Tuscany. He was born to the Florentine Notary Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, and Caterina – a peasant girl. The little bastard boy would go on to become one of the most famous artists that the world had ever seen. At the age of 14, he was apprenticed to Verocchio and by the age of 20 he had qualified as a Master.

Leonardo would go on to produce some of the finest works of art Italy had seen at the time, and indeed would ever be seen. Although it has to be said that Leonardo was awful at getting his commissions finished – he never completed the altarpiece in the Palazzo della Signoria, nor did he complete his commission to pain the Adoration of the Magi for the monks of San Donato a Scopeto. Not only was he an artist, but he was an inventor as well. In 1502 he entered the service of Cesare Borgia as his military architect and produced some of the most accurate maps ever seen, including a map of Imola.

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Da Vinci’s map of Imola

Leonardo spent his last years in France, in the service of King Francis I. Legend states then when Leonardo was dying, King Francis held the dying man’s head in his arms. He died on 2nd May, 1519 at Clos Lucé, and was buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in Château d’Amboise.

Today, Leonardo da Vinci’s legacy lives on through his art work. In a recent trip to the Louvre in Paris, I was struck by just how many people crowded around the tiny Mona Lisa. She is the most famous of his works, people wondering just what on earth she was smiling at. It seemed to me as I stood in front of the Mona Lisa that many of those people didn’t even realise da Vinci had created other, much more beautiful works of art – some of which were on display in the very same room that they were crowded in. In fact, one only has to read his notebooks to understand that Leonardo da Vinci is very much more than the man who painted the Mona Lisa.

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Leonardo da Vinci – self portrait