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Botticelli: Gracefulness and Contemporaneousness by Patrizia Poggi

Updated: Jul 8, 2021


It is with great pleasure to re-introduce you to Patrizia Poggi, writer, consultant and promoter of art, culture and tourism, based Ravenna, and who, in 2020, has written some fascinating ACT articles/blogs about the Emilia-Romagna region being culturally connected to Britain. What prompted the idea for this particular article to be written was my immediate reaction in the recent media to the Sotherby’s sale of Botticelli’s beautiful painting “Young man holding a roundel” to a private buyer. Particularly about its connections, including the powerful influence of Dante Alighieri on Sandro Botticelli and his art. Patrizia’s resounding popularity of her ACT article of 16th January, on Dante 700th and the mystery of his bones, includes crucial insights. As a consequence, I asked Patrizia if she would consider writing a follow up feature researching the previous owners of the “Young man holding a roundel” and its journey to the present day, and also how many other paintings of Botticelli's are still retained in private ownership. All thus connecting back to the master Florentine Renaissance painter himself, his own artistic journey and his influence on contemporary interpretations. She responded positively and passionately. I love the connections...the cultural connections. So here she tells her captivating story…enjoy the experience! Marysia Zipser Founder of Art Culture Tourism ​Nottingham, UK

Botticelli: Gracefulness and ​Contemporaneousness by Patrizia Poggi

Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1445–1510) Idealised Portrait of a Lady (Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as Nymph), ca. 1480 Mixed technique on poplar, 81.3 x 54.0 min. 0.3 cm Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main CC BY-SA 4.0 Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main.

​The "beautiful Simonetta", the "sans par": these are the two nicknames with which one of the most famous noblewomen of the Florentine Renaissance, Simonetta Vespucci, born Cattaneo (Genoa or Portovenere, 1453 - Florence, 1476) has become legendary. A woman considered to be of unparalleled beauty, the object of the desire of many men of mid-fifteenth century Florence, exponent of one of the most ancient noble families of Genoa (the Cattaneo), married at the age of sixteen to the banker Marco Vespucci (relative of the better known Amerigo, the navigator who gave America its name), who died very young (at just twenty-three years old, probably of plague) and associated with the name of many artists of the time, for whom she would have posed. Many wanted to recognize her face, for example, in Venus or in the personification of Spring by Sandro Botticelli and they even wanted to attribute to the two an emotional bond, also on the basis of a legend (without any foundation) according to which Botticelli would asked to be buried next to Simonetta in the church of Ognissanti in Florence. The two were actually buried inside the Florentine church, but because the family tombs of both were in the same church (the Vespuccis owned a chapel, while Botticelli was buried in the cemetery of Ognissanti).

In recent days, the international press has highlighted the auction result achieved by a portrait of Botticelli (1445-1510) entitled "Young man holding a roundel". The painting, one of only three privately owned portraits of the Florentine Renaissance master, reached a record $ 92.2 million.

"In the popular imagination, no other painter evokes the golden age of the Florentine Renaissance with more force than Sandro Botticelli". Thus Christopher Apostle, director of Sotheby's Old Masters Painting Department, tells of the beauty and importance of this painting by Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (1445-1510), called Sandro Botticelli.

The son of a tanner, originally destined (according to Vasari) to be a goldsmith, a path that he will abandon once he becomes an apprentice of Fra Filippo Lippi (various hypotheses make the nickname derive from the robust constitution of his brother Antonio, called "Botticello", or from an alteration of the name of the profession of his brother Giovanni who is a goldsmith, in Florence called "battigello").

Images below from left to right:

  1. Lord Thomas Wynn, 1st Baron Newborough (in Wales). Photo credit: Wikipedia

  2. Sir Thomas Ralph Merton (1888-1969) Portrait drawn by John Ralph Merton

  3. Sheldon Solow (1928-2020) Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Since the 1930’s the ownership of this painting is an entirely British story, when it was first recorded in the collection of Lord Newborough in Caernarvon, Wales. The portrait is believed to have been first purchased by his ancestor, Sir Thomas Wynn, 1st Lord Newborough (1736 - 1807), while living in Tuscany.

​Passed to his descendants, it was later bought in 1935 by the British merchant Frank Sabin, before passing in 1941 to Sir Thomas Ralph Merton. Merton's heirs, in 1982, sold it at auction for 810,000 pounds, at the time 1.3 million dollars, to the current owner, Sheldon Solow, a billionaire and art collector who died in Manhattan last year at 92 years old.

In 2016, the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, dedicated an exhibition to Botticelli entitled "Botticelli Reimagined", the most important retrospective in Great Britain since 1930, with the aim of exploring the great influence that Botticelli had on the artists of the past and which continues to have on contemporary art: from the Pre-Raphaelites to Magritte up to Andy Warhol.

Sandro Botticelli (Florence 1445-1510), The Birth of Venus, 1485c., tempera on canvas, 172.5x278.5; Florence, Uffizi Gallery Credit photo: Florence, Uffizi Gallery
Sandro Botticelli (Florence 1445-1510), The Birth of Venus, Credit photo: Florence, Uffizi Gallery

The beautiful goddess floating on a shell is now an image powerfully rooted in popular culture, known even to those who don't know or have never seen the original painting exhibited at the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence

The famous painting 'La nascita di Venere', for example, is probably the painting that has influenced the largest number of imitations, copies and re-interpretations in all times and in every geographical area of the world. From Venus, revisited and colored by Andy Warhol, to the dresses in printed fabric with images of Venus from the 1993 Dolce & Gabbana collection, to the cover of Lady Gaga's ArtPop disc created by Jeff Koons, to the fine-art photograph by David LaChapelle.

Images below from left to right:

  1. Dolce & Gabbana, Venus Dress: Look 15, Model- Karen Mulder, Dolce & Gabbana S/S Fashion Show in Milan, Italy 1993 Courtesy of

  2. Rebirth of Venus, 2009 by David LaChapelle. Creative Exchange Agency, New York, Steven Pranica / Studio LaChapelle. © David LaChapelle.

  3. Cover of Lady Gaga's ArtPop disc created by Jeff Koons

  4. La Ghirlandata, 1873 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti . © Guildhall Art Gallery 2015. Photo Scala Florence/Heritage Images

  5. The Orchard, 1890 by William Morris, John Henry Dearle, Morris & Co. The subject and tall, elegant figures in this tapestry are reminiscent of Botticelli’s Primavera, which was itself copied shortly after as a tapestry by Morris & Co.

And again in the painting "Venus after Botticelli" the Chinese artist Yin Xin overturns the ideal of Western beauty giving his Venus Asian features, while the Brazilian photographer, Vik Muniz, connects the famous image to today's environmental awareness with Venus emerging from a sea of garbage.

Images below from left to right:

  1. Andy Warhol, ‘Birth of Venus’ (1984), from the cycle Details of Renaissance Paintings, silkscreen photo credit:

  2. Yin Xin, Venus, after Botticelli, 2008, Guillaume Duhamel Private collection | Courtesy of Duhamel Fine Art, Paris credit photo:

  3. Vik Muniz, The Birth of Venus, After Botticelli (Triptic) - Pictures of Junk, 2006

It is in the portraits, however, that Botticelli reveals all his innovative power, depicting his subjects with unprecedented immediacy and intuition, decades before Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) painted Mona Lisa (1503), as can be seen in the "Portrait of Dante", preserved in a private collection in Geneva. Botticelli's warm tribute to Dante Alighieri as a sign of admiration.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Portrait of Dante Alighieri, oil on canvas, 1495. Private collection. ​Surrounded by a soft and clear line at the same time, Dante's profile emerges from the light background and seems to express a sort of calm authority. The laurel wreath, symbol of glory, frames the scarlet red cap. The complexion is olive, the cheekbones and features are furrowed by a play of shadows that makes them even more marked. ​Who could have been the client of this portrait? We may never know. It's likely that the painting was destined for the private library of some intellectual. However, I like to think that this painting represents one of the first examples of fan-art in history.

Yes, because Sandro Botticelli had a boundless veneration for Dante and was one of the most creative and passionate artistic interpreters of him. In 1481, before leaving for Rome to fresco the Sistine Chapel, Botticelli created the drawings of the first nineteen cantos of "The Divine Comedy" for the engravings of Baccio Baldini. Subsequently, he set to work on a grandiose project that, presumably, lasted throughout the 90s of the fifteenth century. The 92 parchments with the illustrations of the poem, commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici and preserved between Rome and Berlin, testify to his true devotion to Dante's work.

Images below from left to right:

  1. Sandro Botticelli, illustration to the Divine Comedy (Inferno) Images of Divine Comedy drawings for the engravings of Baccio Baldini

  2. Sandro Botticelli, illustration to the Divine Comedy, Inferno, canto XXXI Images of Divine Comedy drawings for the engravings of Baccio Baldini

La Bella Simonetta (ca. 1480-85)

And what about this portrait of a beautiful girl, exhibited in Tokyo, at the headquarters of the trading Company Marubeni Corporation? The other privately owned painting.

​It's the portrait "The beautiful Simonetta", Simonetta Vespucci, one of Botticelli's masterpieces. Among the poets of the Renaissance, Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494) defined her as immortal beauty. It is said that a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci has remained which portrays her. The portrait is based on an earlier banner painting for a tournament that launched Lorenzo de Medici's younger brother into society. Simonetta was his courtly love and the colour of her knight is tied around her sleeve.

Botticelli's masterpiece "The Birth of Venus" was painted around the same time and this portrait shows the graceful use of outline, delicate features and superb skin tone. Sadly, Simonetta died a year after the jousting and the young de' Medici was murdered in a Florentine intrigue.

Images below from left to right:

  1. Sandro Botticelli (Florence 1445-1510), The Birth of Venus, 1485c., tempera on canvas, 172.5x278.5; Florence, Uffizi Gallery Credit photo: Florence, Uffizi Gallery - detail

  2. Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici, 1478 - ca. 1480 Tempera on wood, 39,3 cm x 59,5 cm, Bergamo (BG), Accademia Carrara - Museo Giuliano de' Medici (25 October 1453 - 26 April 1478), brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent. "...As the opening stroke of the Pazzi Conspiracy, Giuliano de’ Medici was assassinated on Sunday, 26 April 1478 – in the Duomo of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, by Francesco de’ Pazzi and Bernardo Baroncelli..." (

But Sandro Botticelli also painted the nature of Ravenna, its pine forest inspired by the novella by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) in the Decameron, the one set in Ravenna and precisely in the nearby pine forest of Classe. He painted a series of four paintings that illustrate the scenes from the story of Nastagio degli Onesti, the eighth novel of the fifth day of Boccaccio's Decameron. Three of these paintings are exhibited at the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Here briefly is the story. Nastagio degli Onesti is a young noble from Ravenna. He falls in love with a much nobler girl than his, the daughter of Paolo Traversari and so he squanders her money in parties and banquets to conquer her. She enjoys making him suffer and taunts him, humiliates him so much that he announces that he will hate her, that he will forget her and even that he will kill himself. Nastagio's friends and relatives, worried, advise him to go to the nearby pine forest of Classe, to distract himself.

Below : Sandro Botticelli, Scenes from the story of Nastagio degli Onesti, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

One day, precisely a Friday in early May, while walking in the pine forest, he sees a girl running naked, chased by two dogs that bite her and by a knight who swears to kill her. Nastagio intervenes to save the woman, but is stopped by the knight named Guido degli Anastagi and explains to him that once he had loved that girl, but since she did not reciprocate for his, he committed suicide. The girl showed no repentance and so she suffered the punishment of being killed and then reassembled and finally killed again by the rejected knight for all Fridays and for as many years as the months of rejection had been.

Nastagio observes the scene in which the girl is killed, her body recompose and then be killed again and he gets an idea.

He decides to prepare a banquet right in the pine forest of Classe the following Friday by inviting relatives and his beloved along with her parents. After a few hours what he had foreseen happens, that is the appearance of the two ghosts and the exact same scene that Nastagio had seen the previous Friday. Nastagio explains to the obviously frightened diners the story that Guido degli Anastagi had confided to him, and the girl loved by Nastagio understands how much harm she had done to him, also for fear in front of that scene, falls in love with Nastagio and so the two were married a few days later. Below images: Ravenna Nature group with pine forest and river scenes

From this story it is said that the girls of Ravenna learned to be kind towards those who admire them. ​Patrizia Poggi

**** ​We hope you've enjoyed our Botticelli experience. Please feel free to leave your reactions and any written comments in the box below and/or via our contact links. Many thanks. Patrizia Poggi and Marysia Zipser Art Culture Tourism


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