This article was written by Ezgi Özcan.
La Bella Simonetta was a wife of Marco Vespucci who born as a noblewoman from Cattaneo family in Genoa. They met in 1469 in Genoa during a church ceremony and got married in Florence soon after. The court and the city highly appreciated her beauty, and she became very popular not only in the court but in the entire city. Thanks to her beauty soon after her arrival to Florence, numerous rumours began to circulate around her, the most famous ones were about Botticelli and Giuliano Medici, the brother of Lorenzo (Magnificent).
We will probably never know if Giuliano and Simonetta had a love affair or if she engaged his attention immediately after her arrival but the rumours started right after the La Giosta (jousting tournament). Giuliano joined the tournament with a helmet which had Pallas Athena on it, the helmet was painted by Botticelli, and the similarity between Athena’s face and Simonetta was noticed by everyone. Moreover, it had a motto below the painting; “La Sans Pareille” which can be translated as incomparable/matchless/unique and when Giuliano won the tournament he named Simonetta as “Queen of Beauty”. This scene caused rumours to spread even more.
Soon after the tournament, the entire city started to talk about their love affair and a secret room which Giuliano gave to her to use in Medici Palace. Unfortunately, only a year after the tournament Simonetta died in 1476 due to tuberculosis and two years after her death Giuliano died on the same day in the Pazzi conspiracy.
Before she grabbed the attention of Giuliano, she had already been noticed by Botticelli and other significant painters. According to the rumours especially Botticelli had been very affected by Simonetta’s beauty so has painted her face over and over again in his works. Although Botticelli finished many of his works after Simonetta’s death, the similarity between Simonetta and several women figures in his paintings left many wondering.
Especially, “The Birth of the Venus” with Venus and “Primavera” with one of the graces were attached to Simonetta. Botticelli finished the Primavera probably between the end of the 1470s or the beginning of 1480s; it became one of the most famous paintings in Western art by time. The painting describes classical mythology figures in a garden, but there is no particular story about them as a particular group. Although many reviewers agree that it is an allegory based on the lush growth of spring, they think there is no certain meaning.
The three Graces on the centre-left are sisters who traditionally accompany Venus in classical art. In the painting, Cupid’s arrow is aimed at the middle Grace who looks to the Mercury. The rumours start at this point. The similarities between the middle Grace to Simonetta and Mercury to Giuliano Medici are striking. Cupid’s arrow is also pointed to the middle Grace. Therefore, people took the painting as a description of the secret affair between Simonetta and Giuliano. Except the rumours, the painting is famous for its pastoral scenery which includes 500 identified plants, and more than 190 different flowers painted like the original ones.
Although the Birth of Venus was painted after the Primavera, it became far more famous than it. Most art historians agree that the painting doesn’t have the complex meaning that the Primavera might have. Probably, it is just an individual treatment of a traditional scene from Greek mythology and its fame comes from its sentimental appearance. This painting was linked with Simonetta, because of the golden hair, light eyes and particular beauty of Venus like her and actually like many of the women figures in Botticelli’s works.
Despite the several rumours, we will probably never know, if Giuliano and Simonetta were in love and shared a “secret” affair or if Botticelli was madly in love with her even, in the end, he asked Medici to be buried next to her in the Church of Ognissanti.
I think both Giuliano and Botticelli were affected by her beauty and they were probably in mourning after her loss, like the rest of the city. Perhaps Giuliano died with broken heart and Botticelli wanted to keep her memory alive or couldn’t expel her face from his mind.