Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, who died on this day in 1476, may not be widely known today by name, but she is the woman behind one of the most recognisable faces in the history of Europe. An Italian noblewoman from Genoa, Vespucci, nicknamed la bella Simonetta, was the greatest beauty of her time and her face is immortalised in the celebrated works of Florentine painters including Sandro Botticelli.
The most famous supposed depiction of la bella Simonetta is as Venus in Botticelli’s 1486 masterpiece the Birth of Venus–on display today in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. In this familiar painting, Venus is seen as an idealised beauty arriving from the sea on an enormous scallop shell. The painting was thought to have been commissioned by a member of the powerful Medici family. The family patriarch at the time, Lorenzo, and his brother Giuliano, were known to have been smitten by Simonetta and her portrayal seems partly in honour of this. It is also worth noting, considering the painting’s theme, that Simonetta was born in the Tuscan seaside town Porto Venere, which translates as Port of Venus.
Simonetta was born into a noble home west of Florence. Whilst still a teen, she married Marco Vespucci–a distant relative of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci for whom the Americas are thought to have been named. Marco was said to have been very much in love with Simonetta and the marriage was furthermore one of logic, as the Vespuccis were bankers with strong ties to the ruling Medici family.
The Medicis, not to mention all of Florence, soon became smitten with Simonetta and through them she was introduced to Botticelli, an artist under their patronage. Her likeness is apparent in a number of his most memorable works including the Birth of Venus (1484-6), Portrait of a Young Woman (1480), Portrait of a Young Woman (1480-5), and others. She may also appear in works by another great Renaissance painter, Piero di Cosimo–although some dispute this.
Upon her death, at the early age of 22 in 1476, Florence was said to have mourned. She is buried today in a Franciscan church in Florence named Chiesa di Ognissanit (All-Saints Church). Botticelli is buried close by and a fresco of his adorns one of the naves. Some suggest that Botticelli’s insistence on being buried there is proof of his love for her. If this is so, it seems that the painter was one of many to have fallen for the great beauty.
Credit: © Hemis / Alamy
Caption: Botticelli’s iconic “Birth of Venus” is thought to be a portrait Simonetta Vespucci.