The Birth of Venus

Two of the most famous paintings from the Italian Renaissance feature women. One of them is the Mona Lisa. The other is The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, currently held in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

While the identity of the sitter for the Mona Lisa was only verified by art historians at Heidelberg University in 2005, the model for The Birth of Venus was famous in her own lifetime. Her name was Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, and over 500 years after her death, she is still held up as a paragon of beauty. But how well do we really know La Bella Simonetta?

According to the Uffizi Gallery’s notes and Ronald Lightbown’s 1989 book on Botticelli, Simonetta Cattaneo was born in Genoa in 1453. At 16, she married Marco Vespucci, and the newlywed couple moved to Florence, where Simonetta quickly became a 15th-century It Girl. The men of the ruling Medici family fell at her feet. In 1475, Giuliano Medici, brother of Lorenzo Il Magnifico, held a jousting tournament in which he carried a banner bearing her likeness, painted by Botticelli. By the time of her death at age 22, Simonetta Vespucci was widely held to be the physical embodiment of feminine beauty as viewed through the Neoplatonic lens of courtly love.

Botticelli was commissioned to paint The Birth of Venus in around 1485. The painting shows the goddess Venus riding a scallop shell to shore while one of the Graces of Spring waits for her with a cloak decorated with flowers. According to art historians Leopold Ettlinger and Helen Ettlinger, it may have been the first life-size female nude depicted in Western art since Christianity.

Simonetta reputedly appears in other works by Botticelli, most notably his Primavera (1482) and his portraits of young women. For centuries, the accepted wisdom was that the woman in all these paintings is the same person. But how can we be sure? All of Botticelli’s representations of Simonetta were completed after her death – in the case of The Birth of Venus, 10 years after. Some of the portraits are probably not even Botticelli’s, but were executed by his workshop. 

La Primavera, Sandro Botticelli.

I remember the first time I saw the painting in real life. I was 25 years old and backpacking across Europe. Italy was the centerpiece of my trip; finally, I was in the country of my mother’s birth. Gazing at Botticelli’s canvas, I recall thinking that if this Simonetta Vespucci had been a real person, she must’ve truly been an extraordinary individual. Of course, I already knew her face from countless art posters, calendars, advertisements, and even postage stamps. But still, I was struck by how highly stylized this painting was. This Simonetta/Venus was otherworldly, her torso and limbs disproportionately elongated as if she came from a planet with lower gravity than Earth. Even her stance was impossible; as observed by the critic Kenneth Clark in 1956, she is leaning too far to the left, so that either she is in mid-stumble or is in fact floating in the air.

Perhaps Simonetta was the inspiration, but this imagined woman is the collective creation of her many male admirers. She is a composite, based on the ideals of courtly love which, though sounding thoroughly romantic, in reality, trapped women in cages of unassailable and impossible virtue. It’s instructive to recognize that all of Simonetta’s portraitists were male. Nothing from her own voice or experience survives today.

It would be easy to say that was standard for the times in which Simonetta Vespucci lived. But why should we accept those standards now? We don’t, of course. Ideals are not perfect, nor are they timeless. When we look at The Birth of Venus today, I don’t think we should be looking for timeless beauty. Let’s reflect instead on what beauty means today. Rather than fixed, dated, and prescribed, let’s see beauty as innate, multitudinous, and self-determined. The woman who inspired The Birth of Venus may inspire beauty, but she is not it, itself. 

Images: Wikimedia Commons