Workshop of Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Woman, 1475, tempera on wood panel.
Anyone who is familiar with the work of famous fifteenth-century Italian artist Sandro Botticelli will have no doubt spotted the similarity of a certain face in his paintings. From the famous Nascite di Venere, or, Birth of Venus, to his numerous variations of Portrait of a Woman, the same face repeatedly appears. Botticelli was not the only artist to visualise this mysterious woman. Others such as Piero di Cosimo also chose to portray a woman with similar features. But who was she?
Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Woman, c.1475-80, tempera on wood panel, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie.
In each representation, the woman is depicted with golden blonde hair with waves and curls that are often adorned with jewellery, feathers, and braids. It has been claimed that the subject of representation was much-loved Florentine Simonetta Vespucci (née Cattaneo), otherwise known as la bella Simonetta, or, the beautiful Simonetta.
Piero di Cosimo, Portrait of a Woman, c.1490, 54 cm x 42 cm, Musée Condé, France.
Simonetta was an Italian noblewoman of the mid to late fifteenth century. Born in the region of Genoa, she was married at the age of sixteen to a suitor chosen by her family, Marco Vespucci. The Vespucci family upheld strong connections to the Medici family in Florence, which was likely to be a key reason for their union. Simonetta suffered an early death at the age of twenty-two, but her depiction in numerous paintings of the period have immortalised her as the ultimate subject of adoration and beauty.
Sandro Botticelli, detail of Primavera, c.1477, tempera on panel, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
After John Ruskin first posed the idea in his Oxford lectures of 1872, scholars and historians have repeatedly debated the likelihood of Simonetta being the subject of such numerous visual representation. The figures of Venus and Flora in Botticelli’s Nascita di Venere and Primavera have remained at the forefront of the debate. Art historian Herbert Horne’s 1908 monograph on Botticelli aimed to definitively debunk what he believed to be the myth of Simonetta’s representation in the two artworks. Despite Horne concluding that the famous faces could not be securely identified as Simonetta, art historians and lovers of Botticelli alike have continued to argue for Simonetta’s likeness in the artworks.
Sandro Botticelli, detail of Nascite di Venere, c.1486, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
Even though no further documentary evidence securing Simonetta to the works has appeared, the discussion continues. Perhaps this is due to the compelling similarity in the visual representations of this mysterious woman. There is no doubt that Botticelli, Piero di Cosimo, and others advocated for a particular style and canonical features of beauty. It is known for a fact that Simonetta Vespucci existed and was a favoured noblewoman of Florentine high society around the same time as Botticelli was active in the city. Even so, the artist’s Nascita di Venere was completed around 1486, some ten years after Simonetta’s death, that, yet again, muddies the waters. Evidence such as this is what prompted Ernst Gombrich to outrightly dismiss the resemblance as nothing more than a myth sourced from romanticism.
Sandro Botticelli, details of Primavera, c.1477, tempera on panel, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
Despite the lack of secure evidence to lay truth to the claims that each image shows Simonetta, why not allow a degree of escapism within the story? Art appreciation does not always shed light on clear answers, nor does that have to be its sole purpose. Romantic nonsense or not, art inherently tells a story. The woman in these images tells the story of both the image in which she is portrayed and the story of Simonetta. There is no doubt that a similarity exists between the faces in each image, and so the debate of muse or myth will continue with or without a clear endpoint. Rather than battle the imagination of viewers and the mystery of art, perhaps it is better to simply appreciate the story that lies inside each artwork.