Venus Envy

It’s due time I get out of the 20th century on this blog, artwise at least. Matisse and Rodin and Picasso and Dali and that whole gang have been running the show for many posts now. But the Renaissance is calling, haunting me in my sleep, harassing me in my dreams, and nagging me to acknowledge the musworthiness of the great Florentine age. Also, the stimulating art history discussions over at The Best Artists blog recently has inspired me to get with the program. So get with the program I will.

Great art by a great artist from a great muse will mark my long overdue foray into the Renaissance. You all know Sandro Botticelli. And you all know his 1482 masterpiece The Birth of Venus. But do you all know the life model for this famous piece? You will now. She was Simonetta Cattaneo de Vespucci, wife of Marco Vespucci (distant cousin of Amerigo Vespucci) and mistress of Guiliano de Medici who was the younger brother of Lorenzo. They called her “La Bella Simonetta”, and I’m jealous already. Considered the most beautiful woman in all of Florence, Simonetta attracted the admiration of every Medici man, Florentine man, and Botticelli himself, who was beyond smitten.

One of Botticelli’s portraits of the lovely Simonetta:

While organizing this post, I learned a couple of things I never knew about The Birth of Venus. One is that it was done in tempera. Nice. Also, because Simonetta died tragically young at the age of 22 – probably from tuberculosis – Botticelli didn’t complete the painting until years after her death. He had to finish it without her – the exquisite muse he adored.

Simonetta Vespucci was very likely the model for Botticelli’s Primavera, and a host of other works. Like I’ve said so many times on this blog, when an artist bonds with a muse and derives powerful inspiration from her, he will use her as his subject over and over again. The old saying about variety being the spice of life, doesn’t apply to artists and their models. For them, the perfect one is preferred over an average many. Never mess with chemistry.

In an era when Catholic themes dominated the major works of art, Venus is markedly pagan. It’s miraculous that the painting escaped the wrath of Savonarola, the zealous, fanatical Dominican priest who initiated book burnings and the destruction of all art he deemed sinful and sacrilegious. Here she is, the goddess Venus emerging from the sea, with the revered, idealized image of Simonetta front and center: