Buried at la bella Simonetta's feet - the Birth of Venus and the Death of Botticelli in 1510

17 May 1510, the Early Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli died at the age of 65 in Florence.

“It is also said that he had a surpassing love for all whom he saw to be zealous students of art; and that he earned much, but wasted everything through negligence and lack of management. Finally, having grown old and useless, and being forced to walk with crutches, without which he could not stand upright, he died, infirm and decrepit … and was buried in Ognissanti at Florence. “ (Giorgio Vasari, “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects“)

Idealised “Portrait of a Lady”, probably “la bella Simonetta” (c. 1480)

Florence the New Jerusalem, the city’s Medici rulers were unceremoniously chucked out of the place and a Republic was proclaimed in 1495. Then Savonarola’s campaign to rid the city of vice began. Everything that might have given him or his inner circle, the Frateschi, a frown on their Puritan visages was penalised – from sodomy to gaudy dresses – and the jeunesse dorée of the New Jerusalem was organised into a militia, patrolling the streets and curbing vice. With clubs. And the pyres burned in public places with everything the Medici had adored, antiquities, books, works of art. It was fortunate for everyone involved, posterity included, that Botticelli’s works were spared somehow, but the great Florentine artist had to do penance, malicious gossip has it that he even supported Savonarola’s terrorist theocracy, painted a few religious pieces and was at least at leisure to draw 94 illustrations for Dante’s “Divine Comedy” after the theocrat himself was burned at the stake in 1498. But Botticelli and the early Florentine Renaissance weren’t what they used to be before the terror. Vasari’s appraisal of Botticelli’s last years might be exaggerated, but they are certainly true in a figurative sense.

A self-portrait of Botticelli in his “Adoration of the Magi” (1475)    

It might have been unrequited love to Florence’s most celebrated beauty, Simonetta Vespucci, wife to one the famous explorer’s numerous cousins, that made Botticelli never marry. Her beautiful countenance allegedly flows through most of his various imaginations of female beauty, even if fair Simonetta died in 1476 at the age of 23 of tuberculosis, a decade before Botticelli created most of the masterpieces that supposedly celebrate her beauty. Nonetheless, the artist novel of Sandro and Simonetta came to an end when the great master of the early Renaissance was buried at her feet in the Vespucci’s parish church, Florence’s chiesa di Ognissanti, according to his own wish. However, the ideal of beauty represented by Simonetta became the embodiment of the transition of the northern Gothic spirituality, still in great demand at the court of Botticelli’s Medici master, if only in the form of artworks, and the nascent recourse on antiquity and its sensuality, uniting the late medieval Madonna with the image of Venus and allowing for the celebration of nudity without the chromatic signs of Christian prudery for the first time in thousand years. 

Sandro Botticelli “La nascita di Venere” c. 1486 

Neoplatonism was quite à la mode in late 15th century Florence and Venus represented for an educated art connoisseur like Lorenzo de’ Medici, Botticelli’s probable commissioner for “the Birth of Venus”, a dualistic view of divine and sensuous love and it might actually have been a wedding painting, a customary gift wishing both on a newly-wed couple. Besides the idea of Simonetta’s beautiful countenance at the back of his mind, Botticelli, however, had quite a lot of recently rediscovered images of the event of Venus’ birth at his disposal, form antique verses to preserved classical paintings and Praxiteles’ Venus de’ Medici. And while he, goldsmith by trade and an accomplished draughtsman, could capture anatomically correct human contours perfectly well, he chose to deviate and create a supernatural image of beauty aligned to Praxiteles with Gothic art shining through the Renaissance ideals in the foreground of the painting. A fantastic piece of imagination with strict lines, duly forgotten later in the Renaissance as well as in Baroque art, only to be resurrected by a few enthusiastic Englishmen who saw Botticelli as an ideal before Raphael spoiled everything Botticelli had created and Simonetta’s countenance began to appear in the enigmatic, otherworldy smiles of Jane Morris and Elizabeth Siddal, the models of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

And more about Botticelli on:


Simonetta Vespucci on:


and the “Birth of Venus” on