Sandro Botticelli (Sandro Filipepi)
Idealized portrait of a lady (Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as nymph), ca. 1475
This is an idealised portrait of Simonetta Vespucci – a young noblewoman who was married at the age of sixteen – in the role of a nymph. She was considered the most beautiful woman in Florence and became the – supposedly platonic – ladylove of Giuliano de’ Medici. Apart from Botticelli, she also served other painters as an inspiration. She died young and childless at twenty-three. She presumably did not appear in public quite this perfectly styled. Her coiffure with beads, ribbons, feathers and artificial hairpieces would have been too elaborate and high-flown even by Florentine standards. Her outfit is much more likely to have been a nymph costume in the antique or classical-mythological style.
The background likewise contributes to Simonetta’s idealisation: it is as black as that of the little stone carving she wears around her neck, and it lends the painting the plasticity of a relief. What we encounter here above all is thus the contemporary feminine ideal – consummate in beauty, virtue and conceptual proximity to antiquity. But note such subtleties as the eyelashes and slight turn of the upper body towards the viewer: the ideal portrait is alive. It breathes. These are the qualities that explain its rank as one of the highlights of Renaissance painting.