Simonetta Vespucci: a Renaissance muse?

April 26, 2010

Was Botticelli's famous Venus conjured from his imagination?

There are a handful of images that define the Renaissance in a truly universal sense. These famous works, with the aid of various forms of media over the years have become  icons of the period. Examples of such works are Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel depiction of the Creation of Adam, or his brooding David. Despite their great fame however, little significance is attached to the models these images were derived from.

Even Leonardo da Vinci's famous Mona Lisa, generally believed to be a portrait of Lisa Gheradini, presents more questions than answers about the true identity of the sitter. From the wildest of theories to more scholarly considerations, the fascination of the Mona Lisa has as much to do with the enigma of Leonardo, than any true public admiration of the person depicted.

It is here we arrive at Sandro Botticelli, and his famous Birth of Venus. Botticelli's real name was Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi.   The nickname Botticelli (Little Barrel) is believed to have arisen on account of his older brother being called Botte (Barrel) due to his large physical stature.

Inserting self portraits into a work was not as prevalent in the Early Renaissance as it was to become later on. The young Botticelli was described as 'handsome but sickly' by contemporaries.

Born and trained in Florence,  Botticelli apprenticed under the famed Fra Filippo Lippi, and later came to the fore under the Patronage of the Medici. His tale of success, and subsequent decline is sobering, but tells us much about the great historical events shaping his era. Despite this, Botticelli has left us with some of the most memorable images in Western Art - with the Birth of Venus being at the pinnacle.

Over the centuries, the central figure of Venus/Aphrodite has become a symbolic depiction of innocence and idealised beauty. Botticelli's Venus, whilst instantly recognisable for anyone familiar with art, has one very special distinction - the depiction suggests the model was of great significance to the artist.

It is here we must tread carefully in describing this attribution. It is a contentious issue in art history, resulting in much furrowing of brows when one states that Botticelli's Venus was inspired by if not a direct portrait of Simonetta Vespucci.

A famous beauty and quite literally a neighbour of the artist, she married into the famed Vespucci family, who were (distantly) related to the cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, honored by Christopher Columbus when naming  the Americas.

Mars and Venus c. 1483. Uffizi. In 1475, Giuliano de' Medici participated in a jousting tournament, carrying a banner featuring Simonetta modelled as the Goddess Athena, painted by Botticelli. This image, painted after the death of both Simonetta and Giuliano, pays homage to their memory and beauty.

The details of Simonetta's birth are sketchy. Her association with Botticelli even sketchier - but we do know Botticelli would have regularly seen her and on occasion had painted her portrait.

These are among several alleged Botticelli portraits of Simonetta Vespucci. Left: painted whilst Simonetta was still alive in 1474. Right: completed in 1480, 4 years after Simonetta's death in 1476, aged 22.

The enigma that is creativity lies at the heart of understanding any artist's work. How do past experiences and inspiration mix to form such a potent result? This magical process is something which has delighted poets, sculptors and painters for centuries. This is embodied in the notion of a Muse, which in classical times were identified as divine beings or natural phenomena  that aided the creative process.

Plato wonderfully stated:

The man who arrives at the doors of artistic creation with none of the madness of the Muses would be convinced that technical ability alone was enough to make an artist... what that man creates by means of reason will pale before the art of inspired beings.

Examination of Botticelli's work simply demands the presence of a Muse. Even as Botticelli's subject matter changed after Girolamo Savonarola attacked Pagan art in the infamous Bonfire of The Vanities in 1497, there is a particular face that reappears in many of Botticelli's works. The face we see over and over again must have meant something to Botticelli.

The degree to which we can ascribe the likeness to an infatuation held by Botticelli is subject to speculation. Among the most prominent detractors of the Botticelli-Vespucci theory is modern historian Felipe Fernandez-Arnesto, who submits that due to a lack of a definitive document, ascribing that Botticelli's work was inspired by Simonetta Vespucci is a "vulgar assumption."  It is unfortunate for those reading his books that Mr. Arnesto tells us little else of what he does see in Botticelli's works.Whilst definitive documentation would  be ideal, we often do not have this luxury when it comes to unraveling the intent and actions of artists from the past. 

What would drive an artist to repeat these features over a span of decades?

It is in two Botticelli masterpieces that the Vespucci controversy burns hottest - these being The Allegory of Spring aka La Primavera - and the Birth of Venus. These paintings were private commissions for the Medici family, and believed to be wedding gifts to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici and his bride. It is thought that they occupied spaces in the couples bedroom, with some evidence stating the panelling the paintings are on were actually attached to bedroom furniture. To better understand the content,  we must now look at the paintings and decipher the key symbols Botticelli provides for us.

As described by the Greek Poet Hesiod, Venus is shown, arriving on the shores of Cyprus, posed as the famous Venus Pudica (Modest Venus). It is a common misconception that the famous Venus de' Medici would have been viewed by Botticelli. This is not the case as this particular piece arrived in Florence in the 17th Century. However, the Medici collection is known to have had classical nudes, even in Botticelli's time.  In addition, Botticelli travelled to Rome in 1481 in a delgation to paint the walls of the Sistine Chapel. During this time he would have been exposed to more examples of classical sculpture. It is interesting to not that many of Botticelli's female figures show variations of the type of posing seen in classical sculpture, suggesting that these idealised forms served as compositional templates.

Venus de' Medici. A Roman copy of Aphrodite of Cnidos, 4th Century BCE. Praxiteles of Athens

 In accordance with this ancient motif, Venus shyly covers herself in a form that celebrates classical innocence and beauty via the nude form. Despite the saucier depictions of Venus that were to follow in subsequent periods of Art - Botticelli's Venus is a direct homage to Antiquity and to the Medici patrons to whom the image was attributable.
The Allegory of Spring, sometimes referred to as La Primavera, is a treasure map of symbology - with themes and figures from Ancient Greece to 15th century.

In La Primavera, we see a depiction of Mercury on the far Left. This figure is believed to be the Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-1492) also known as Il Magnifico (The Magnificent) - who was Botticelli's chief patron during that period.  He gestures at a fruit with Mercury's staff, denoting a very obvious metaphor towards the consummation of his cousin's marriage.

This portrait is dated c.1474-5. The identity of the sitter has never been conclusively established, though the similarity to the Mercury in the La Primavera is striking. Some believe this to be a portrait of Lorenzo The Magnificent as a young man. The affiliation to the Medici is proclaimed by the large medal featuring the image of Cosimo de' Medici

A Medallion of the type owned by the Medici family members and their associates. The front is an image of Cosimo de' Medici, the flipside is the Three Ring symbol of the family, which was commonly used to signify them in works of art.

Dancing amidst La Primavera are The Charites, or Three Graces - symbols of beauty and fertility since Antiquity.  The fertilsation motifs and "plucking of fruit" produce the central image of a woman with child. On  the right is Zephyrus and Chloris. The gust of wind from Zephyr's lips is indicative of the vital role of wind in the pollination of plants - and is hence a classic symbol of the process of fertilisation.  Those familiar with the tale of Zephyrus and Chloris will understand that the initial union between these two was forced. This is believed to be an allegory of the marriage between the Lorenzo di Pierfranscesco de' Medici and Semiramide d'Appiani - moreso a politically fortuitous match than one born of Love.

Left: A Painting of The Three Graces from Pompeii.Centre: A Roman Era Sculpture now housed at the Piccolomini Library in Siena. Right: Enamored of Classical Motifs, Raphael also painted The Three Graces

Taking a closer look at these two paintings - it is possible to suggest that they form a progression. Side by side, the paintings take on a compositional and iconographic balance that transcends each individual piece. The transition of the chaste and innocent young woman towards motherhood is the main theme that eclipses all the Pagan nuances of the works.

Whilst seeing them together like this is interesting - we can not be certain that they ever were this close together. We do know that in 1499, La Primavera was housed in a Florentine city building owned by the Medici - though it may well have been moved from the Villa since being initially completed in 1482.

An inquisitive eye peering at most of the figures in La Primavera could think the females depicted all look somewhat similar. To some observers(including myself), the leftmost figure of the Three Graces looks seems to look the most like the Venus rising from the sea. We are also told that the Grace on the right bears a strong resemblance to Caterina Sforza, illustrating how the Sforza family of Milan were sympathetic to the Medici of Florence.

Since we have no evidence of the true identity of Botticelli's models, what can be surmised is that some of his figures are reminiscent of  an individual person, persistently represented. This depiction is of an idealised beauty- which we know Simonetta possessed. This marries nicely with the descriptions we have of Simonetta  as "The Queen of Beauty" or "The Unparalleled One" and the great loss felt by Florence upon her death. The similarities seen may also be attributable to Botticelli simply being drawn to a particular type of model - which is definitely not uncommon in Art.

Was Botticelli infatuated with Simonetta Vespucci? Possibly, but not definitely.

There is one final element to the Tale of Sandro and Simonetta. Visitors to Florence can view Botticelli's grave, which happens to be at the Church of the Vespucci family, the Ognissanti, where Simonetta is also buried. It is said that Botticelli requested to be buried at the feet of La Bella Simonetta in his last will and testament - and that this was honoured some 34 years later.

Botticelli's grave is marked  at the Ognissanti. No present day marking exists denoting that he was buried at Simonetta's feet, but History records that she was also buried here along with other Vespucci family members.

Is this the crucial piece of evidence that links Botticelli to Simonetta in an emotionally intimate way? Again, possibly, but not definitely! After copious reading on the subject, all that can be encountered is other people saying "he asked to be buried there."  There is no documented record, and it presently can not be ascertained when this tale propagated. It is also entirely possible that Botticelli was simply buried at that church as it was his local place of worship, and that he was a local person of renown. Until someone digs around in the archives and pulls out some documentation stating otherwise, the romantic burial request also remains in the realm of speculation.

Many poems, books and documentaries have discussed Botticelli and his works. Among the most notable was the special on La Primavera that was created for the Private Life of a Masterpiece series, which is now available for purchase. Here is a preview:

For those interested in exploring the visual details of Botticelli's extended works, Botticelli by Dette, Eclercy & Schumacher (ed.)  a wonderfully illustrated hardcover, containing the most up to date scholarship on the Florentine Master.
A familiar face, painted as Athena

The cover of this book is taken from Botticelli's Pallas Athena and the Centaur. This painting was discovered in 1895 and is now housed at the Uffizi in Florence. The three ring pattern on Athena's dress marks it as a Medici commission. As we are also aware that Botticelli had painted Simonetta as Athena for the jousting banner in 1475, the sorrowful look on that familiar face has an emotional impact extending beyond the mythological tale.


Christiana Moreau said...

Merci pour votre visite sur mon blog de Simoneta Vespucci.

Votre blog est absolument intéressant, j'aimerais beaucoup le lire...Hélas...Je ne lis que le français ou l'italien! Vous n'auriez pas pour moi la traduction?

Anonymous said...

Historian Fernandez-Arnesto assumes a huge patrician snottiness by implying that we who claim Botticelli loved Simonetta, are vulgar. Clearly he is suffering from the scientism-sickness with which so many historiographers are stricken. He can easily cure himself of this by reading Robert Graves' The White Goddess. Graves points out that only those endowed with the poetic - read "artistic" - sensibility are really able to get to the nitty-gritty of what mythical symbolism is all about. The historian can also avail himself of the analytical tools of depth psychology if he needs to analize a work of art. Artists are well endowed to sense the psychology of a painting, and can feel with a stick around a corner that Botticelli was fatefully infatuated with the arthritic, maybe already consumptive young beauty. His Venus is one of modernity's major artistic symbols. Whatever else it is, it is emblematic of womankind's unshackling after millennia of sexual oppression. It presages our - and men's - sexual liberation by five centuries, and Simonetta deserves to be honored also. As his muse she played her part with her transcendent looks and all, and was a plaything for her day's rich noblemen, no doubt. And the circumstantial evidence overwhelmingly supports this intuition. Let Fernandez-Arnesto go jump, or whatever. We mustn't allow ourselves to be bludgeoned into submission with his kind of talk. Thanks anyway, great insightful blog. Jessica, Pretoria, South Africa.

Unknown said...

Thank you Jessica - I loved reading your comment!

How Fernandez-Arnesto can be so rude and dismissive strikes me as rather odd as well. There's much more than one instance of this woman's image and more than one person that was infatuated by Simonetta's beauty at the time. (Read Lorenzo Il Magnifico's Memorial Poem for example)

Even the most ardent historiographer would have at least explored that, not shrugged it off as 'a vulgar notion' as Fernandez-Arnesto did.

Kind Regards

Unknown said...

Edit note: Following an unsavoury plagiarism incident drawing attention to this older piece, some minor visual and grammar fixes were applied. (Jan 2011) The guts of the content is the same!


Tony said...

I do wonder if part of Simoneta's fame is actually due to her neice Semiramide. I found one alleged picture of her, and if that is anything to go by, she looked very much like her aunt. And like when her aunt was alive, Botticelli would have seen a lot of her after Simonetta's death.

Unknown said...

Hello Tony! Thank you for your comment. I'd venture to say La Bella Simonetta still had en edge over her aunt as far as popularity was concerned - considering she was immortalised in Poliziano's La Giostra, and had Giuliano de' Medici win a jousting tournament in her honour. Even Lorenzo the Magnificent wrote a lament in homage to her beauty after her early death.

For more on this - feel free to read this related post: Misrepresenting Boticelli for the modern era

Kind Regards

Cyril said...

What's about Salman Rushdie new book "Enchantress Florence"? He's good writer, anyway clever person... But this novel produces strange impression....Despite some solid bibliography to this novel is there any real plot behind all these Renaissance improvisations? It's not his territory, I guess...

Unknown said...

Hello Cyril. Welcome to 3PP! I did not know Rushdie had ventured into the Renaissance. I can't say I'm a great fan of historical fiction myself, but if I ever come across that book cheap or in a e-format, I may give it a look.

The only work of fiction set during this time that I have fond memories of was Anne Rice's 'The Vampire Armand' which features references to Renaissance artists.

Kind Regards

Cyril said...

Thank you for the attentiveness and thank you for Anne Rice's novel recommendation!

Best Regards


Tim Sparks said...

Thanks for your wonderful essay on Botticelli and Simonetta! Are you also familiar with a similar story regarding the original model for the Aphrodite of Praxiteles?

Mya Nhame said...

I was wondering if there were any books written about SImonetta? I know she died very young and there isn't a lot about her personal life out there but she made such an impact while she was alive I thought someone might have written a biography.

yifat said...

i really loved what you wrote, it is very interesting and inspiring to understand where everything begins - with the muse. where did you get the information? what sources did you use?

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