‘I would never forget what I was doing when they came to tell me that Simonetta, my Simonetta, was dead…‘
Many, oh so many, years ago as a romantic gothically inclined teenager, I wrote a short story about Botticelli and his love, Simonetta Cattaneo de Vespucci. Unusually for me, it was written from the point of view of a man, the sensitive artist, Sandro, burning with unrequited love rather than the beautiful and unattainable object of his desire, the lovely Simonetta.
Everyone knows the face of Simonetta Vespucci. Even my husband, who knows naff all about art recognises Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, even if he didn’t know the name of the woman whose incandescent beauty inspired it.
But who was Simonetta Vespucci? La bella Simonetta, who inspired so many of our best loved art works? She was born in Genoa, the daughter of a local aristocrat, Gaspare Cattaneo in 1454 and from an early age was celebrated for her unusual loveliness.
She was married at the age of fifteen to Marco Vespucci, the cousin of the famous explorer Amerigo Vespucci and was whisked away by him to live in Florence, then at the height of the Renaissance. Simonetta’s looks and gentle, sweet nature soon made her the centre of attention in her new city and she was feted and stared at wherever she went.
In 1475 she attracted the attention of Giuliano Medici, the impetuous younger brother of the celebrated Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruler of Florence. He was to enter the lists holding a banner with her portrait by Botticelli at a jousting tournament that year with the French motto La Sans Pareille ‘The incomparable one’ written underneath.
It is not known for certain if Simonetta and Giuliano became lovers but if they did then it must surely have dated from this tournament when the lovely Simonetta, flushed with shyness was hailed as Queen of Beauty.
Giuliano de Medici was not her only conquest at this time. The artist Sandro Botticelli was also smitten and used her as the inspiration of many of his finest and most lovely works including not just The Birth of Venus but also his Primavera and many of his Madonnas. They may not have been directly modelled upon Simonetta but her swanlike neck, fine features, downcast amber eyes and thick corn coloured hair are distinctive.
Sadly, Simonetta’s triumph in Florence was short lived and she died during the night of 26th and 27th April 1476 at the age of just twenty two. It isn’t known precisely what she died from but it is likely that tuberculosis was the cause. Her death caused widespread mourning throughout the city, with thousands of people following her bier to its final resting place in the Church of Ognissanti.
Botticelli continued to paint her likeness throughout his long career and requested that his remains be buried at her feet when he finally died, which they duly were in 1510, thirty four years after she herself had been laid to rest.
We will probably never know the truth of what happened between Botticelli and Simonetta but never before had an artist’s imagination been so completely seized by his muse. It is no wonder really that the much later Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood admired his works so much and the story of his tragic infatuation with Simonetta Vespucci must surely have inspired the passion of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his own flame haired love, Elizabeth Siddal.