Virtue and Beauty

Sandro Botticelli, Young Woman (Simonetta Vespucci?) in Mythological Guise, c. 1480/ 1485

Sandro Botticelli, Young Woman (Simonetta Vespucci?) in Mythological Guise, c. 1480/1485, tempera on panel, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main


The Fantasy Beauty

Although lifelike, early Renaissance portraits of women also conform to an ideal of beauty. Most Florentine women, then as now, were brown-eyed brunettes, yet they are often portrayed with blond hair, ivory skin, and sparkling eyes. These portraits reflect a canon of beauty derived from literature, especially from sonnets written by Petrarch in the fourteenth century in praise of his beloved Laura. Beauty was closely linked to virtue in Renaissance thought: because physical beauty signified an inner beauty of spirit, a beautiful woman was seen as an agent who could draw man to love, and through love, to God.

A striking echo of Laura's portrait is Botticelli's Young Woman (Simonetta Vespucci?) in Mythological Guise. Her flowing golden tresses and braided hairpieces recall one of Petrarch's verses: "Breeze that surrounds those blond and curling locks, that makes them move...and scatters the sweet gold, then gathers it in lovely knots recurling...." Botticelli's portrait may fuse Laura's attributes with those of the renowned Florentine beauty, Simonetta Vespucci, Giuliano de' Medici's ladylove who died in 1476 at the age of twenty-three. The relatively large size of this painting possibly reflects another lost work: a portrait of Simonetta in the guise of the mythological goddess Athena, which Botticelli had painted on a standard that Giuliano carried in a ceremonial joust in Florence in 1475.


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