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:

3 thoughts on “Venus Envy

  1. Sheramy says:

    Botticelli and Simonetta Vespucci are both buried in the church of the Ognissanti in Florence. Legend says he specifically asked to be buried there to be near her. *sniffle*

    The Birth of Venus is one of those artworks that even though it’s ridiculously famous, it still knocks your socks off in person. (Unlike, I’m sorry to say, Mona Lisa.)

  2. artmodel says:


    Yes, I read that about Ognissanti, that Botticelli requested to be buried there by Simonetta. It’s so romantic! Even in death, the artist can’t leave his muse.

    It’s been many years since I was in Florence, but you’re right about the Birth of Venus being so impressive in person. It’s an incredible sight. And my viewing of the Mona Lisa, by the way, was rather underwhelming, mostly because the crowd gathered in front of it was maybe ten tourists deep! I could hardly get close to it. Disappointing.

    Thanks for your comments!


  3. Sheramy says:

    It’s funny, anybody I’ve talked to who has seen Mona Lisa in person says they were somehow let-down by the experience, either by the crowds, not being able to see well, or just being underwhelmed by the work itself. It’s fascinating to me how certain pieces become “icons” and still live up to it (I’d add David to that list!) and some just don’t.

    I enjoyed your Jeanne H. post also. The film with Andy Garcia is a little hokey (sometimes he sounds kind of Italian, sometimes he sounds like he oughta be driving a Brooklyn cab) and not enormously accurate, but I liked it ok. The music alone is worth the watch. The gal who plays Jeanne played one of van Gogh’s lady-friends in the French film “Van Gogh” from the early 90s.

    Cheers, Sheramy

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