A few weeks ago I was telling you about Simonetta Vespucci, the beauty of 15th century Florence, who is said to have been loved by Giuliano de’ Medici and painted, at least once, by Renaissance Italian artist Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510). After she died in 1476 just before turning 23, the Medici brothers and the courtiers promoted her myth, the Florentine poets racing in praising her beauty and virtue. It is expected that postmortem, or even during her life, the painters had paid her homage as well, but all we’re left with is mostly suppositions.
For instance, in a letter written by Simonetta’s father-in-law to Giuliano’s mother, Vespucci said that he gave his daughter-in-law’s portrait to Giuliano de’ Medici, in order to comfort him in his grief. Giorgio Vasari, the Italian art critic, also wrote in Lives of the Artists that “in Duke Cosimo’s wardrobe there are two very beautiful heads in profile by Botticelli, one of which is said to be the mistress of Lorenzo’s brother, Giuliano de’ Medici”.
Jumping from supposition to supposition, it’s possible that Vasari was referring in fact to Simonetta Vespucci and to a number of mysterious Botticelli paintings – more or less depicting the same woman – which have been generically titled Portrait of a Young Woman. Among them there is one completed between 1480 and 1485 that is currently at Städel Museum in Frankfurt (Germany).
The Frankfurt portrait is perhaps Botticelli’s most idealized of the series. The large bust and the flowing hair sexualize the woman’s appearance; it was improper at the time for a woman to pose with her hair let down. Her hairstyle is highly intricate and unusual, with two braids meeting between her breasts, to further eroticize her. Resembling more a nymph than a formal portrait sitter, the fact that she is looking away makes her even more desirable to the viewer, for she is unattainable.
However, the young woman’s torso is not completely turned in profile, tantalizing us with her subtle eroticism and directing us to an important detail: a glimpse at her medallion. The medallion, called Nero’s Seal, belonged to Lorenzo de’ Medici, and what we’re seeing in this painting is its copy in reverse. The lack of detail in the background also points to the fact that this is an idealized portrait, Botticelli usually placing his subjects against architectural settings.
The legend of Simonetta Vespucci being Botticelli’s inspiration for his mythological paintings and series of Portrait of a Young Woman was exacerbated by art critics during the 19th and 20th centuries, but has since been highly contested. It remains unlikely though, in my view, that in his quest to depict the ideal woman Botticelli wouldn’t have drawn a little inspiration from one of the most beautiful women of his time. It’s also worth noting that the Städel Museum has given this painting the title Idealized Portrait of a Lady (Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as Nymph), ca. 1475.