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Today is thought to be the birthday of Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli, one of those painters from hundreds of years ago who was famous for a while, became cruelly forgotten after he died, then suddenly became famous again years later. History has recorded very little about his life and times, so we can all look at his work now and speculate wildly on what it all means.

Botticelli has been dead for more than 500 years, but he’s left us some enduring images on the walls of the Sistine Chapel and in museums around Europe and the US. He painted for popes and for his wealthy patrons from the Florentine ruling class circa 1490 A. D. Like most artists of his day, he painted what he was paid to paint, but I’m sure he worked his own twists and turns into his paintings. It’s one of those twists and/or turns that I have on my mind today.

The Birth of Venus (Sandro Botticelli, 1486)

The Birth of Venus dates back to 1486 and is one of the most recognizable paintings from the Early Renaissance period. It’s a depiction of one a popular tale from Roman mythology, but that’s not what interests me about it.

Scholars can debate it’s meaning all they want but I like to view it as an homage to his unrequited love for a beautiful woman who first rejected Botticelli and then, even more thoughtlessly, died on him. That woman would be Simonetta Vespucci, a Florentine noblewoman who had expired, a decade before this painting was created, at the tender age of 22. She was was widely hailed as the most beautiful woman in Florence, maybe even the most beautiful woman of her time, although you have to question how that title might have been achieved. The wiki article linked above gives some vague mention to her being crowned the Queen of Beauty at a jousting tournament, something that I find hilarious for reasons I cannot divulge.

Like all humans who have lived past the age of 10, I know a little about unrequited love. Scholars may reject that Botticelli recalled the Fair Simonetta in his work but I’m going to believe it. Venus was only one of a number of times that Botticelli painted that woman, whoever she was, and I’m finding it so much more romantic believing that it was a reflection of his memory of her and not some idealized version of ‘the perfect woman’ that he made up.

Simonetta(?): Detail from La Primavera (Sanrdo Botticelli, 1482)

Knowing what I know about unrequited love and heartbreak and the death of hope, all of which each of us is inevitably cursed in our teens, I also have no trouble believing that Simonetta is also the inspiration for the naked chick being torn apart by dogs in Botticelli’s The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti, a series of paintings representing a rather depressing tale of rejection, suicide, and eternal torment. This being an uplifting discussion, I won’t be sharing those with you here. You’ll have to seek them out on your own.

I’ll let scholars argue about meanings. I choose to believe these things about Botticelli and Simonetta Vespucci because they provide an interesting (if a little heartbreaking) backstory to some equally interesting artistic creations, but also because they provide a connection that we can all share with an artist and a muse who are both long gone but not quite forgotten.

Maybe Botticelli’s heart wasn’t crushed by Simonetta. Maybe Venus is a fabrication. If true, there must be another explanation for the fact that when Botticelli died, 34 years after Simonetta Vespucci, he wanted to be buried at her feet in the Church of Ognissanti in Florence, where they both remain to this day.

 

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