The visage of a ravishing, young woman appears again and again in the art of Sandro Botticelli, Early Italian Renaissance painter. It is a face that is almost as familiar to art lovers all over the world as that of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
Botticelli’s model for his most famous art work, The Birth of Venus, was the beautiful Simonetta Vespucci. Once nominated “The Queen of Beauty” at a Florentine jousting tournament, it was Simonetta’s face that Botticelli painted on an art banner that was carried into battle by the tournament winner, Giuliano de’ Medici, a man soon to become her lover. Inscribed beneath her image, Botticelli described her as “the unparalleled one.”
Shortly after her arrival in Florence, Simonetta became known as “La Bella Simonetta,” attracting the attention of poets and artists like Botticelli. They vied to honor her with their artistic creations. At the age of fifteen, Simonetta married a cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, the famous Italian explorer for whom America was named.
It was through the Vespucci family connection that Simonetta first met Botticelli and the Medici family, prominent political figures and art patrons. Giuliano de’ Medici was the younger brother of Lorenzo de’ Medici, a wealthy aristocrat who was referred to by his admirers as “Il Magnifico” or Lorenzo the Magnificent for his generosity and lavish lifestyle.
Simonetta, “the unparalleled one,” personified ideal beauty.
The personification of ideal beauty was an important concept to Italian Renaissance artists like Botticelli who thought that outward beauty reflected inner beauty or virtue (spiritual beauty). Simonetta died young in 1476 at the age of twenty-two from tuberculosis, but Botticelli continued to feature her image in his art for the next three decades.
All of Botticelli’s female art images were portraits of Simonetta, her face even appearing several times within some compositions. At some time before his death thirty-four years later, Botticelli requested to be buried at Simonetta’s feet. His request was granted and both are interred in the Vespucci parish church of Chiesa d’Ognissanti in Florence, Italy.
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Article by Brenda Harness. She is a practicing artist, art historian, and former university lecturer writing about a variety of topics pertaining to art and art history. Visit her at Fine Art Touch.