If we had to choose the most famous paintings in history, there would certainly be one from Botticelli and, most likely, the one chosen would be The birth of Venus, which is one of the greatest paintings ever produced in Quattrocento. The curious thing is we can also admire the face of this goddess in other paintings of the time, both by the same author and his contemporaries (Piero de Cosimo, Ghirlandaio). This is due to the model who posed and the enormous popularity she achieved in her short life: Simonetta Vespucci.
The beautiful Simonetta, as she would be known, did not reach this world in such a spectacular way as the character to whom she would later lend her image, but neither was it an ordinary birth, since her parents were of distinguished bloodlines: he was a Genoese aristocrat named Gaspare Cattaneo Della Volta who married Cattocchia Spinola, whose surname would later be closely linked to Spain.
Details of the occasion are uncertain, however, as neither the date (28 January but it is unclear whether 1453 or 1454) nor the place (perhaps Fezzano, a part of the municipality of Porto Venere, or perhaps Genoa) are known exactly. Regarding the latter, there is someone who points to the Ligurian town of Porto Venere, where classical mythology located the place where Venus was born by her mother Tetis; it would be magnificent but sounds rather legendary. There is a syncretic theory suggesting that the Cattaneo had to go into exile from Genoa for political reasons and settled in Fezzano, where they had a villa.
In any case, the young woman belonged to the noble Cattaneo family, whose origins go back to the Middle Ages. However, the surname with which she entered history is that of her husband, the Florentine Marco Vespucci. He will be known to many because he was the cousin of Amerigo, the navigator and cosmographer who moved to Castile, Spain, and changed his name to Américo Vespucio while working for the Casa de Contratación after being involved in two of Columbus’ trips. His name was chosen by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller to name the New World in his Universalis Cosmographia (1507).
Piero Vespucci, Marco’s father, met the Cattaneo in Piombino, where they had been welcomed by Duke Jacopo III Appiano because he was married to Battistina, the half sister of Simonetta (the child of a previous marriage between his mother and Battista Fregoso, the twelfth duke of the Republic of Genoa). Piero had sent his son to Genoa frequently to study laws and business at the Banco di San Giorgio, where Gaspare Cattaneo worked, and the young man thus had the opportunity to meet Simonetta, with whom he fell madly in love.
Gaspare Cattaneo thought Marco would be an excellent son-in-law because the Appianis were close to the powerful Medici, an interesting friendship in that difficult scenario where Constantinople and the Genoese colonies in the Aegean and the Black Sea have just fallen, anticipating hard times. So the Genoese church of San Torpete was the stage for the wedding in the spring of 1469, celebrated at all heights, attended by almost all the blue blood from northern Italy and even by the same Dux of Venice, who was related to the mother of the bride. Simonetta was sixteen years old.
The couple settled in Florence just as Lorenzo the Magnificent had just come to power, who invited the newlyweds to a party at Villa Medici in Careggi. It would be the first of many in the comfortable life of that couple of noble ancestry and, in fact, it was one of those events that determined the transcendence that the wifely would have for art. Specifically the so-called Julianus Tournament, which was organized by Lorenzo’s homonymous brother in Piazza de la Santa Croce in 1475 to celebrate the new tripartite alliance signed the previous year between Florence, Milan and Venice.
It was a tournament in the old chivalrous style – although the Middle Ages had been left behind, some customs would remain until the first quarter of the following century – and Julian himself took part in one of the jousts. Apparently he was in love with Simonetta – it is not known if she corresponded him – and in the parade before the fight his armourman hoisted a banner painted by Botticelli in which Minerva was seen with spear and shield holding Gorgona’s head under the motto La Sans Pareille ( The Unrivalled one ). At Juliano’s request, the painter had given the goddess Simonetta’s face and had added a figure of Cupid to the side.
Juliano was one of the winners of the tournament (Leonardo da Vinci portrayed his triumphant horse) and Simonetta, who was the lady the Medici was fighting for, was elected Beauty Queen. That catapulted her to an enormous popularity and she became the muse of several artists but very specially of Botticelli, who represented her features in approximately a dozen works. As we said at the beginning, The birth of Venus is the best known and also supposed a whole stylistic revolution by showing a nude without religious justification and depicting an openly mythological theme.
We can see Simonetta in Alegory of Spring, Venus and Mars, The Virgin of Granada, The column of Apeles and even in the fresco dedicated to Judgment of Moses at Sistine Chapel, among other paintings, some of them portraits made without thematic pretext. She also posed for Ghirlandaio in his Madonna della Misericordia and for Piero di Cosimo in The death of Procri (where she also appears naked, demonstrating that Renaissance standards had been definitively imposed in art).
Moreover, Piero di Cosimo was the author of the only portrait in which she is identified with her name even though she appears characterized as Cleopatra; unique because almost all the others (and this one too), signed by Botticelli, are posthumous, made out of memory after her death or perhaps based on previous sketches. And here we come to the sad end: unfortunately, as they said in that film, the light that shines twice as brightly lasts half the time and tuberculosis (or plague, according to another theory) killed that young woman a few months after her great moment, when she was barely twenty-three years old. It was April 26, 1476.
Lorenzo the Magnificent , who had already written a laudatory poem after the Juliano Tournament (Selve d’Amore was titled), composed this time some elegiac sonnets; the initial stanza of one of them said “O chiara stella che co’ raggi tuoi…”, alluding to the fact that the deceased would ascend to the firmament to illuminate it even more. It should be noted that Battistina had also died, two years earlier.
Such devotion has aroused certain suspicions in some researchers, who point to the possibility that the cause of the death was poison, so common in Renaissance Italy, perhaps because of her husband’s jealousy or because of the hostility her father-in-law had become involved with the Medicis (who, in the end, were displaced by the Pazzi). It is impossible to know, although it is true that Marco Vespucci did not take long to remarry another woman.
For Botticelli, on the other hand, it was a tragedy. Some point out that, despite the accusations of homosexuality he received (and was acquitted of), he actually suffered a platonic love for his muse. In fact, he never got married, which he said he had “horror”, despite of what he arranged that when he died he should be buried at the bottom of Simonetta’s tomb, which is located in the Florentine church of All Saints, Vespucci pantheon. Indeed, his wishes were fulfilled when he died thirty-four years later. In the meantime, it took him nine years to finish The birth of Venus and he gave Simonetta’s features to all the women he painted – sometimes more than one in the same painting – even though she no longer lived to pose.
Sources: Simonetta Cattaneo (Niccolo Mineo en Trecani)/Dictionary of Artists’ Models (Jill Berk Jiminez)/El Quattrocento en Italia (Renato de Fusco)/El mundo de la bella Simonetta (Germán Arciniegas)/Piero Di Cosimo: Visions Beautiful and Strange (Dennis Geronimus)/Botticelli. La primavera. Florencia como jardín de Venus (Horst Bredekamp)/Wikipedia