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ETERNAL GODDESS UNRAVELING THE

MYSTERY OF THE BEAUTY WHO INSPIRED


GREAT ART
By Alexander Theroux . Chicago Tribune (pre-1997 Fulltext) ; Chicago, Ill. [Chicago, Ill]17 July 1988: 1.

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ABSTRACT (ABSTRACT)
Leonardo sketched her. Lorenzo de'Medici threw lavish banquets in her honor. Pulci and Poliziano composed great
poems for her. Young men fell in love with her on the spot. Many great Italian Renaissance artists painted her,
among them Filippo Lippi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Piero di Cosimo. She was perfection.
The "fair Simonetta" was tall and had a presence almost meltingly beautiful in what it reflected of ideal loveliness:
the exquisite face, the soft willing eyes, the full bust and golden hair, the high forehead of refined birth and
intellect. But it is, of course, primarily as Botticelli's inspiration that she is most well-known, for it was she the great
artist took as the model for his masterpieces, the "Primavera," "The Birth of Venus," "Mars and Venus," "Pallas and
the Centaur," and many others. Her glory blazed even as she lived.
Her name was Simonetta Cattaneo. She was born in Genoa in 1454, the daughter of a leading family with Teutonic
forebears. The Cattaneos of Genoa were among the backers of Christopher Columbus. Although Genoese, she
spent her early years in Piombino living with her sister, Battestina, the wife of the despotic, somewhat infamous
Jacopo III d' Appiano. It was in the castle of the Appiani that the busy and ambitious Piero Vespucci, on his way
home to Florence from Constantinople, forged the first link in his dream of greatness by arranging the marriage of
his son, Marco, to the beautiful Simonetta.

FULL TEXT
This article by Alexander Theroux first appeared in the March, 1988, issue of Art &Antiques. (copyright) 1988.
Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. Alexander Theroux is a novelist whose most recent book is "An
Adultery."
Leonardo sketched her. Lorenzo de'Medici threw lavish banquets in her honor. Pulci and Poliziano composed great
poems for her. Young men fell in love with her on the spot. Many great Italian Renaissance artists painted her,
among them Filippo Lippi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Piero di Cosimo. She was perfection.
The "fair Simonetta" was tall and had a presence almost meltingly beautiful in what it reflected of ideal loveliness:
the exquisite face, the soft willing eyes, the full bust and golden hair, the high forehead of refined birth and
intellect. But it is, of course, primarily as Botticelli's inspiration that she is most well-known, for it was she the great
artist took as the model for his masterpieces, the "Primavera," "The Birth of Venus," "Mars and Venus," "Pallas and
the Centaur," and many others. Her glory blazed even as she lived.
And yet her life was brief, for she disappeared in the flush of youth. Much myth and mystery still surround her.
In 1965, searching for the Botticellis in the Uffizi (gallery in Florence, Italy), I remember feeling almost immediately
overwhelmed by the innocence and near breathtaking loveliness of his most characteristic Madonna, the Virgin
with the Pomegranate, and at the same time the movie-star beauty and sensuous modern good looks of the Venus,
the olive flesh tones, the long neck and sloping shoulders, the honeyed torrent of cascading hair about the
exquisite body.
More than anything, I was struck by the sweet face. A ripe mouth, as paperback writers say. I wanted secretly to
kiss her. There is something basic and wistful and hearthbreakingly feminine about her.

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Rumors and falsehoods about her have persisted for centuries. Some claim she was betrothed to Giuliano
de'Medici. Others insist she was Botticelli's mistress. (In nearly all his paintings of her she appears almost
completely nude.) She is said to have despaired of the fact that she was merely the symbol of what she really
wanted to be. It also has been said that, proud of her great beauty, she once announced to Botticelli: "I will be your
lady Venus. You shall paint me rising from the waves."
Her name was Simonetta Cattaneo. She was born in Genoa in 1454, the daughter of a leading family with Teutonic
forebears. The Cattaneos of Genoa were among the backers of Christopher Columbus. Although Genoese, she
spent her early years in Piombino living with her sister, Battestina, the wife of the despotic, somewhat infamous
Jacopo III d' Appiano. It was in the castle of the Appiani that the busy and ambitious Piero Vespucci, on his way
home to Florence from Constantinople, forged the first link in his dream of greatness by arranging the marriage of
his son, Marco, to the beautiful Simonetta.
Lorenzo the Magnificent, first among the Medici family and richest of Florence's merchant princes, gave the
nuptial feast. Simonetta was 15 years old when she married, not only beautiful, but also fairly wealthy. Jacopo III
gave her as part of her dowry several of his iron mines on the island of Elba.
She was about 20 when Marco brought her to his home in Florence. It must have been an exciting time for her, as
the city in the middle of the 15th Century was the artistic center of Italy, a place swarming with artisans of all
trades: weavers, leather workers, painters and sculptors. The Vespucci family lived in the northwestern quarter of
the city, bordering on the Arno-it was known as the Ognissanti quarter-and was the leading family of the district.
(Their ancestral home was in Peretola.)
Simonetta must have been thought a superb addition to the distinguished family. In the famous Ghirlandaio fresco
in the chapel of S. Salvadore d'Ognissanti church-where the Madonna maternally enfolds the entire Vespucci
family-she is almost without doubt the beautiful young woman with the attractive, pearl-draped coiffure.
In the many portraits and representations of her, Simonetta Vespucci's hair was almost always intertwined with
strings of pearls. It was a symbol, a characteristic, an icon almost honorifically extended to her by the likes of
Botticelli, Lippi and Piero di Cosimo.
Marco's distant cousin, Amerigo Vespucci, who was only three years older then Simonetta, also was one of the 13
members represented on the Ghirlandaio fresco. An agent of the Medici family, he often found himself on business
in Seville and Cadiz and eventually became a "private" explorer who would one day lend his name to a continent.
After three long voyages he took a fourth and supposedly reached the mainland of the New World on June 16,
1497, a mere eight days before John Cabot, the Italian-born sailor who explored for England. It was Mundus Novus,
Vespucci's controversial account of his voyage, that led to his name being used for America.
The painter Sandro Botticelli also lived in the Ognissanti quarter at the time. His real name was Alessandro di
Mariano Filipepi, and he was born in (or about) 1444. His family, a large one, owned a tannery on the other side of
the river, near the Santa Trinita bridge. He was apprenticed in 1458 to Fra Filippo Lippi, in whose workshop he
would remain an assistant until 1467. The young Botticelli also was friendly with some of the pupils in (Andrea del)
Verrocchio's workshop, particularly with Leonardo da Vinci.
Later, many of his commissions came from leisure-loving Florentines who had inherited wealth. It was for the
Vespucci family that he painted the allegory of Mars and Venus, adding as a symbolic touch the swirling "wasp"
(vespe) above the head of the reclining Mars, and using their daughter-in- law, Simonetta, as his model for the
goddess of love. The Vespucci family was to become for him an important conduit. It was through them that he
was introduced to the even wealthier Medici family members, who were to become his patrons.
Sandro's special patron, for whom he executed several of his most important still extant works, was not Lorenzo
the Magnificent but his cousin, Lorenzo ("il Popolano"), the son of Pierfrancesco de'Medici. It was for the newly
purchased country villa of this younger Lorenzo at Castello that in 1478 Botticelli painted his famous "Primavera"
("Allegory of Spring"), and then in 1485-nine years after Simonetta's death-that second masterpiece of fanciful
classicism, "The Birth of Venus."
Botticelli rarely painted on canvas. His favorite support was panel, usually walnut. He used egg tempera.

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He was reputedly so sensitive that one of his rivals swore that he had no skin at all. There are supposedly three or
four self-portraits of him. Some say he's the moody young man of about 30 with the heavy eyes and sensual lips in
his "Adoration of the Magi." There's a delicacy, a musical coherence to his paintings; at the same time we almost
always sense a longing in him, a feeling that goes far beyond the reaches of his pale and limpid skies, that seems
to imply that earthly beauty can only palely reflect the ideal loveliness of a higher sphere.
It was Simonetta whom Botticelli elevated into the Platonic personification of ideal beauty and goodness, and it
was her image that stayed with him until the end of his days.
Was Simonetta ever Botticelli's mistress? Certainly they would have seen each other often. But the painter was
supposedly ill at ease with women.
The idea that they were lovers is less likely than unthinkable. Simonetta was not only to him the embodiment of
moral beauty, but a woman of high repute, and beyond that, married to a man of distinguished family. Added to
which, she was probably more than any other woman the cynosure of all eyes in Florence.
Proof of that occurred in 1473, about the time Simonetta first came to the city. She was present at the ball given in
honor of Eleonora de Aragon, daughter of the King of Naples, who was passing through Florence on her way to
marry Ercole d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. It was a celebration fit for a princess. Like all other festivities arranged in
Eleonora's honor, the ball must have been a momentous event. The traditional folk festival, a "St. John," was the
city's public act of homage to Eleonora: flag races, processions, fireworks, and a banquet, which reached its grand
finale in a ball.
The ball was held on the banks of the Arno in the gardens of the Palazzi Lenzi, close by the houses of the Vespucci
family. There was singing, dancing, lute music. The three graces of the ball were Eleonora de Aragon, Albiera degli
Albizzi and Simonetta Vespucci.
Simonetta's star was rising. From then on she never left Florence. The afternoon of the dance she was seen-and
for Simonetta to be seen was to be loved-by all the young men of the city. Above all, it was the ardent eyes of
Giuliano de'Medici, the passionate and headstrong younger brother of Lorenzo, that supposedly followed her every
graceful step.
Giuliano was the same age as Simonetta. He was wealthy and dashing and given the good looks his older brother
lacked. His friends called him the "Prince of Youth."
That there was a heartfelt passion between the two has been repeated often, along with much romantic
speculation that because the chief personages of several of Botticelli's paintings-notably the "Primavera" and
"Mars and Venus"-were figured in likeness of Simonetta and Giuliano, they were lovers, but the web of romance
spun about their names remains insubstantial.
It is almost certain that Giuliano's love for Simonetta, though intense, remained on a purely platonic plane, though
he did worship her, wrote verses for her, and gave illustrous pageants in her honor. By a strange fate they were
almost always linked. It was uncanny.
Two years after the ball, in 1475, the city of Florence celebrated its alliance, a political one, with Venice and the
pontiff. Lorenzo the Magnifcent sent delegates to many cities bearing invitations to a tournament at which
Giuliano was to be the central figure. According to a chronicle of the event, he wore silver armor; his horse had
been sent as a gift from Apulia; and the jewels on his tabard (cloak) and cap dazzled the eye. And finally for the
Prince of Youth-who also wore the favor of La Bella Simonetta-Verrocchio painted a banner with a portrait of Pallas
Athena on it to be carried by him. It was in reality the portrait of Simonetta. And she was queen of the tournament.
For reasons of a literary nature, this tournament achieved an historic importance far beyond that in which Giuliano
contended. Several poetic accounts have come down to us, notably ones by Luigi Pulci and-by far the greatest-
Agnolo Poliziano himself who, portraying Giuliano as a hunter conventionally fleeing Love but chasing a white
dove, has Cupid suddenly present him in the depths of the forest with a living vision of Simonetta Vespucci: White
is the maid and white the robe around her, With buds and roses and thin grasses pied; Enwreathed folds of golden
tresses crowned her Shadowing her forehead fair with modest pride: The wild wood smiled; the thicket where he
found her, To ease his anguish, bloomed on every side; Serene she sits, with gesture queenly mild And with her

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brow tempers the tempest wild.
A proud brow, which is modest, cordial grace, golden hair, virtue- Poliziano has fixed the traits of Simonetta, traits
that reappear in all the verses and paintings of which she is the subject. It is generally accepted that Botticelli
found in this poem, the "Giostra," the inspiration for his "Primavera." Even to the detail of the dress, which he
supposedly took, not from the one she wore the day of the tournament, but from the one she wore the afternoon of
Eleonora's ball.
A musical painting, a pavanne, the picture is like a tapestry garden, the graceful, swinging arabesques that tie
together the various figures as delicate as the tranparent fabrics, as fantastic as they are poetic. One can't tell
whether the movement of the figures is defined by their bodies or by their veils, nor whether the veils sway with the
movement of the dance or flutter in the breeze.
The meaning of the allegory is uncertain. Many regard it as a moment in the reign of Venus. To the right, Zephyr
pursues Flora who, once possessed, becomes the "hour" of Spring and scatters flowers on the world. Venus, in the
center, is Humanitas, patroness of the Medicean Humanists. Then there are the Three Graces (Chastity, Beauty
and Love) and Mercury dissipating the clouds. Others have read much into the symbolic meanings of the 500
different flowers, herbs, and grasses in Botticelli's meadow (Of 190 flowering plants, 138 have been identified, and
half still grow in the gardens of the villa at Castello). One critic suggests it depicts a ball at which Simonetta
appeared both as Flora and as Grace; another finds in it a "mystery" relating to the death of Simonetta Vespucci.
A year after the tournament, in April of 1476, Simonetta Vespucci was dead -of consumption. She was only 22.
When he received the news, Lorenzo the Magnificent had just seen a star that no one had observed before. "That is
Simonetta," he said, and wrote: Bright shining star! Thy radiance in the sky Dost rob the neighboring stars of all
their light. Why art thou with unwonted splendor bright? Why with great Phoebus does thou dare to vie?
The lid of the coffin was left open as she was borne through the streets so that all of Florence might have one last
glimpse of the embodiment of the realm of light. Leonardo da Vinci, who formed part of the funeral cortege,
sketched her head. Giuliano de'Medici and Luigi Pulci wrote elegies.
Her body was laid to rest in the Vespucci chapel in the Church of Ognissanti. There, too, just outside but close
beside her in the garden burial ground, the body of Sandro Botticelli came to rest in May, 1510.
And then a final enigma, still not understood. In a characteristically unpredictable gesture sometime after her
death, her father-in-law, Piero Vespucci, inexplicably gave Simonetta's portrait and her personal belongings to
Giuliano, not to her husband, Marco.
The portrait in question was most likely the one now known as The Chantilly Simonetta. It is attributed by some to
Piero di Cosimo, and by others to Pollaiuolo (both members of the Vespucci circle), and remains the most famous-
and definitive-portrait of her. It is the complete image of her beauty that no one felt any need to veil. The stormy
sky, the contrast between leafless and leafy trees, the snake coiled around her gold collar (16th Century biographer
Giorgio Vasari thought of Cleopatra), all allude to her untimely death. Her face is beautiful, but melancholy, a mask,
otherworldly.
It was Giuliano's destiny to die young, at 24. He was stabbed to death and left in a pool of blood on the Dunomo
(cathedral) floor during the Pazzi Conspirary of 1478.
A final irony was that Piero, Simonetta's father-in-law, mysteriously connived in the escape of one of the assassins,
and then disppeared himself.
Piero's disappearance incensed the Florentines, who conducted a massive manhunt to find and punish the guilty
parties. Piero was finally caught and dragged back to Florence. He was tortured for 20 days, and his screams, it is
said, could be heard for blocks.
The honor of the Vespucci family was deeply compromised. In their homes Piero's name was never spoken again.
Piero was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Marco was exiled and not heard from again. We know nothing else about him. He had no family of his own.
Like so many beauties of legend, Simonetta had died without offspring, though her image continues to live on.
CAPTION:

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GRAPHIC (color): Lauros-Giraudon/Art Resource. Piero di Cosimo, Simonetta Vespucci. Chantilly, Musee Conde.
"The Chantilly Simonetta," as it is now known, is attributed by some to Piero di Cosimo, and by others to Pollaiuolo
(both members of the Vespucci circle), and remains the most famous-and definitive-portrait of Simonetta
Vespucci.
GRAPHIC: Lauros-Giraudon/Art Resources; Sandro Botticelli, after 1482. Simonetta in Botticelli's "Pallas and the
Centaur."
Illustration
GRAPHICS 2

DETAILS

Publication title: Chicago Tribune (pre-1997 Fulltext); Chicago, Ill.

Pages: 1

Number of pages: 0

Publication year: 1988

Publication date: Jul 17, 1988

Section: TEMPOWOMAN

Publisher: Tribune Publishing Company LLC

Place of publication: Chicago, Ill.

Country of publication: United States, Chicago, Ill.

Publication subject: General Interest Periodicals--United States

ISSN: 10856706

Source type: Newspapers

Language of publication: English

Document type: NEWSPAPER

ProQuest document ID: 282421280

Document URL: https://search.proquest.com/docview/282421280?accountid=46586

Copyright: Copyright Chicago Tribune Co. Jul 17, 1988

Last updated: 2011-11-01

Database: Research Library Prep

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