Possibly one of the most eccentric painters of his time, Piero di Cosimo (1462 – 1521) was an Italian Renaissance artist that frequently depicted elaborated mythological scenes and was often commissioned to do the portraits of the noblemen and women of Rome and Florence. Also known as Piero di Lorenzo, he borrowed the Cosimo name from his master, Cosimo Rosselli, whom he regarded as a father.
Di Cosimo’s “Portrait of a Woman, said to be of Simonetta Vespucci” was completed around the year 1480, when the artist himself was only 18 years old. In this case, the myth is just as powerful as the artwork and whether di Cosimo portrayed Simonetta Vespucci or not, the mystery only increases its value. All we can say for sure is that unlike other Italian aristocrats, Vespucci never got the chance to pose for Piero di Cosimo.
But first things first. Who was Simonetta Vespucci? If the name sounds familiar, maybe that’s because she married Marco Vespucci, the distant cousin of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. She was around 15 or 16 when the marriage took place and the couple moved to Florence. There, Simonetta’s beauty quickly drew the attention of the highest ranked noblemen, among them the Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano. While Lorenzo “Il Magnifico” (The Magnificent) was busy ruling the state and sponsoring artists, Giuliano openly courted Simonetta, in spite of her married status.
In 1475 during a jousting tournament Giuliano de’ Medici presented himself with a banner painted by none other than Sandro Botticelli. The banner was showing Simonetta Vespucci as Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare, defeating with her virtue the disorder of Love, depicted as a bound Cupid with his arrows broken. The motto was La sans par, meaning The Unparalleled One. Giuliano won that tournament and Simonetta was nominated The Queen of Beauty.
Vespucci died one year later of tuberculosis, in 1476, when she was only 22 years old. We do not know for sure if Giuliano and Simonetta ever became lovers, though there are many more people that think she was in fact Botticelli’s lover and muse. But that’s a story for another time.
The reason we do not know for sure if Piero di Cosimo’s portrait is depicting Vespucci or not is mostly because the name inscription, SIMONETTA IANVENSIS VESPUCCIA, was added much later. When Giorgio Vasari describes the painting in The Lives of the Artists he makes no reference to Vespucci: “Francesco [da San Gallo, fellow painter and close friend of Piero di Cosimo] still has a work by the hand of Piero that I must not pass by, a very beautiful head of Cleopatra, with an asp wound round her neck”.
Maybe that was supposed to be the head of Cleopatra all along. Or maybe di Cosimo saw a parallel between the Queen of Egypt’s death, bitten by an asp (an Egyptian cobra) and Simonetta Vespucci’s premature death by consumption. Fourteen year old di Cosimo would have been deeply impressed by the passing of Vespucci, a beauty legend of Florence. The fact that the asp wound is on the neck instead of the breast, where Cleopatra was supposedly bitten, makes some critics consider that as a symbolic reference to Simonetta Vespucci’s death by tuberculosis.