Simonetta Vespucci ( ca. 1453 – 26 April 1476), nicknamed la bella Simonetta, was an Italian noblewoman from Genoa, the wife of Marco Vespucci of Florence and the cousin in law of Amerigo Vespucci. She was renowned for being the greatest beauty of her age.
She was born as Simonetta Cattaneo circa 1453 in a part of the Republic of Genoa that now exists within the Italian region of Liguria. A more precise location for her birthplace is unknown: possibly the city of Genoa, or perhaps either Portovenere or Fezzano. The Florentine poet Politian wrote that her home was “in that stern Ligurian district up above the seacoast, where angry Neptune beats against the rocks … There, like Venus, she was born among the waves.” Her father was a Genoese nobleman named Gaspare Cattaneo della Volta (a much-older relative of a sixteenth-century Doge of Genoa named Leonardo Cattaneo della Volta) and her mother was Gaspare’s wife, Cattocchia Spinola (another source names her parents slightly differently as Gaspare Cattaneo and Chateroccia di Marco Spinola).
At age fifteen or sixteen she married Marco Vespucci, son of Piero, who was a distant cousin of the explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci. They met in April 1469; she was with her parents at the church of San Torpete when she met Marco; the doge Piero il Fregoso and much of the Genoese nobility were present.
Marco had been sent to Genoa by his father, Piero, to study at the Banco di San Giorgio. Marco was accepted by Simonetta’s father, and he was very much in love with her, so the marriage was logical. Her parents also knew the marriage would be advantageous because Marco’s family was well connected in Florence, especially to the Medici family.
Simonetta and Marco were married in Florence. Simonetta was instantly popular at the Florentine court. The Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano took an instant liking toward her. Lorenzo permitted the Vespucci wedding to be held at the palazzo in Via Larga, and held the wedding reception at their lavish Villa di Careggi. Simonetta, upon arriving in Florence, was discovered by Sandro Botticelli and other prominent painters through the Vespucci family. Before long every nobleman in the city was besotted with her, even the brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano of the ruling Medici family. Lorenzo was occupied with affairs of state, but his younger brother was free to pursue her.
At La Giostra (a jousting tournament) in 1475, held at the Piazza Santa Croce, Giuliano entered the lists bearing a banner on which was a picture of Simonetta as a helmeted Pallas Athene painted by Botticelli himself, beneath which was the French inscription La Sans Pareille, meaning “The unparalleled one”. From then on Simonetta became known as the most beautiful woman in Florence, and later the most beautiful woman of the Renaissance.
Giuliano won the tournament and the affection of la bella Simonetta, who was nominated “The Queen of Beauty” at that event. It is unknown, however, if they actually became lovers.
Simonetta Vespucci died just one year later, on the night of 26–27 April 1476. She was only twenty-two at the time of her death. Her husband remarried soon afterward. The entire city was reported to mourn her death and thousands followed her coffin to its burial.
Botticelli finished painting The Birth of Venus in 1485, nine years later. Some have claimed that Venus, in this painting, closely resembles Simonetta.This claim, however, is dismissed as “romantic nonsense” by historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto:
The vulgar assumption, for instance, that she was Botticelli’s model for all his famous beauties seems to be based on no better grounds than the feeling that the most beautiful woman of the day ought to have modelled for the most sensitive painter.
Some suggest that Botticelli also had fallen in love with her, a view supported by his request to be buried at her feet in the Church of Ognissanti – the parish church of the Vespucci – in Florence. His wish was in fact carried out when he died some 34 years later, in 1510.