Portrait of a woman, said to be of Simonetta Vespucci (c. 1490) by Piero di Cosimo
|Died||26 April 1476 (aged 22-23)|
|Parent(s)||Gaspare Cattaneo Della Volta and Cattocchia Spinola|
Simonetta Vespucci (née Cattaneo; 1453 – 26 April 1476), nicknamed la bella Simonetta, was an Italian noblewoman from Genoa, the wife of Marco Vespucci of Florence and the cousin-in-law of Amerigo Vespucci. She was known as the greatest beauty of her age in Northern Italy, and was allegedly the model for many paintings by Sandro Botticelli, Piero di Cosimo, and other Florentine painters. (Some art historians have taken issue with these attributions, which the Victorian critic John Ruskin has been blamed for promulgating.)
Simonetta Vespucci was born Simonetta Cattaneo circa 1453 in a part of the Republic of Genoa that is now in the Italian region of Liguria. A more precise location for her birthplace is unknown: possibly the city of Genoa, or perhaps either Portovenere or Fezzano. The Florentine poet Politian wrote that her home was "in that stern Ligurian district up above the seacoast, where angry Neptune beats against the rocks ... There, like Venus, she was born among the waves." Her father was a Genoese nobleman named Gaspare Cattaneo della Volta (a much-older relative of a sixteenth-century Doge of Genoa named Leonardo Cattaneo della Volta) and her mother was Gaspare's wife, Cattocchia Spinola (another source names her parents slightly differently, as Gaspare Cattaneo and Chateroccia di Marco Spinola.
At age sixteen she married Marco Vespucci, son of Piero, who was a distant cousin of the explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci. They met in April 1469, when she was with her parents at the church of San Torpete in Genoa; the doge Piero il Fregoso and much of the Genoese nobility were present. Marco had been sent to Genoa by his father, Piero, to study at the Banco di San Giorgio. Smitten with Simonetta, Marco was accepted by her parents as their daughter's prospective bridegroom; they likely felt that the marriage would be advantageous because Marco's family was well connected in Florence, especially to the Medici family.
Simonetta and Marco were married in Florence that same year. According to legend, Simonetta quickly became popular at the Florentine court, and attracted the interest of the Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano. Lorenzo permitted the Vespucci wedding to be held at the palazzo in Via Larga, and held the wedding reception at their lavish Villa di Careggi. At La Giostra (a jousting tournament) in 1475, held at the Piazza Santa Croce, Giuliano entered the lists bearing a banner upon which was a picture of Simonetta as a helmeted Pallas Athene, painted by Botticelli, beneath which was the French inscription La Sans Pareille, meaning "The Unparalleled One." Giuliano won the tournament, and nominated Simonetta as "The Queen of Beauty" at that event. It is clear that Simonetta had a reputation as an exceptional beauty in Florence, but Giuliano's display should be considered within the conventions of courtly love. Simonetta was a married woman and a member of a powerful family allied to his. It is unknown and unlikely that they became lovers.
Simonetta Vespucci died just one year later, most likely from tuberculosis, on the night of 26-27 April 1476. She was twenty-two at the time of her death. She was carried through the city in an open coffin for all to admire, and there may have existed a posthumous cult about her in Florence. Her husband remarried soon afterward. Giuliano de Medici was assassinated in the Pazzi conspiracy in 1478, two years to the day after Simonetta's death.
Among other subjects, Sandro Botticelli painted portraits of noblewomen, several of which are attributed as portraits of Simonetta, but proof is difficult to establish. It has been postulated that some of his later works also contain representations of her. He finished one of his most famous paintings, The Birth of Venus, around 1486, 10 years after Simonetta's death; some have claimed that Venus, in this painting, closely resembles her. This claim, however, is dismissed as a "romantic myth" by Ernst Gombrich, and "romantic nonsense" by historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto:
The vulgar assumption, for instance, that she was Botticelli's model for all his famous beauties seems to be based on no better grounds than the feeling that the most beautiful woman of the day ought to have modelled for the most sensitive painter.
Some art historians, including John Ruskin, suggest that Botticelli had fallen in love with Simonetta, a view supported by Botticelli's request to be buried in the Church of Ognissanti -- the parish church of the Vespucci -- in Florence. His wish was carried out when he died 34 years later, in 1510. However, this had been Botticelli's parish church since he was baptized there, the church contained works by him, and he was buried with his family.
Botticelli painted the standard carried by Giuliano at the joust in 1475, which carried an image of Pallas Athene that was very probably modeled on her; so he does seem to have painted her once at least, though that particular image is now lost. Botticelli's principal Medici patron, Giuliano's younger cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, married Simonetta's niece Semiramide in 1482, and it is likely that Botticelli's famed allegory Primavera was painted as a wedding gift for this occasion. Again, this is a work that some have claimed contains a representation of Simonetta.
Portrait of a Woman by the workshop of Sandro Botticelli, mid-1480s
Flora in The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, circa 1484-1486
Detail of the Venus figure in The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, circa 1484-1486
A Satyr mourning over a Nymph by Piero di Cosimo, circa 1495
Regarding each Portrait of a Woman pictured above, credited to the workshop of Sandro Botticelli, Ronald Lightbown claims they were creations of Botticelli's workshop that were likely neither drawn nor painted exclusively by Botticelli himself. Regarding these two paintings he also notes that "[Botticell's work]shop...executed portraits of ninfe, or fair ladies...all probably fancy portraits of ideal beauties, rather than real ladies."
Simonetta Vespucci may also be depicted in the painting by Piero di Cosimo titled Portrait of a woman, said to be of Simonetta Vespucci, which portrays a woman as Cleopatra, with an asp around her neck. Yet how closely this resembles Simonetta is uncertain, not least because it is a posthumous portrait created about 14 years after her death. (Worth noting as well is the fact that Piero di Cosimo was only 14 years old the year of Simonetta's death.) The museum that currently houses this painting, the Musée Condé, questions the identity of its alleged subject and titles it "Portrait of a woman, said to be of Simonetta Vespucci", noting that the inscription of her name at the bottom of the painting may have been added at a later date.
This translation is somewhat loose. Maraviglia di mie belleze tenere / Non prender già ch' i' nacqui in grembo a Venere. A literal reading of Poliziano would put her birthplace in the town of Portovenere, but this is more likely a reference to Botticelli's Birth of Venus.
Once on the museum's web site, click on the "Recherche" section, then search by "Vespucci" to find details of this painting