"…in that stern Ligurian district up above the seacoast, where angry Neptune beats against the rocks. There, like Venus, she was born among the waves."
Her profile was like a coastline, offering both dangers and havens to the hand that caressed it. The fingers would hold the memory of the lines, curves and soft plateaus of her face – and the skin would be pierced with burning recollections.
Coiled and curled about her neck like amber vipers, her hair writhed down her back. Her flesh was pale and warm – marble that had melted under an Italian sun and then poured into a shape rivaling that of Venus. Some said she was born in Portovenere, where that most voluptuous of goddesses was born; where she combed her gilded hair inside a pillared temple.
She was named Simonetta Cattaneo, and was born in 1453 or 1454. During this time the roles of women were obvious, yet hidden: prostitutes lounged in churches; the beauties of the day wove amongst their admirers like fish; they were exquisite blurs, eluding the many hooks laid out to catch them.
But Simonetta was caught when still a child – adulthood came quickly to claim youth, innocence had few defenders. She was married at 15 to a Florentine, Marco Vespucci. Within a few years, every nobleman in the city was watching her, catching his breath at the sight of her creamy skin and wild, auburn braids. Each one saw his desire reflected in the pearls ascending her brow.
In 1475 one of those men, Guiliano de Medici, entered the lists of a jousting tournament carrying a banner that bore the image of Simonetta dressed as Athena. In the soft, golden breezes her figure rippled and beckoned; beneath it was written La Sans Pareille, "The Unparalleled One". Guiliano won the tournament and Simonetta was named "The Queen of Beauty".
Sandro Botticelli decorated the banner. Her face floated throughout his paintings, a ghostly feminimity that chained them together in unrequited ardor. She was Flora, Goddess of Spring; She was Venus, gazing serenely on the sleeping Mars, lying naked an defeated next to her; she was Venus emerging from the sea, her hair unlocked and alive in the rose-scented air, balanced on a shell that curled at her feet.
But these veiled tributes were painted after her death, when grief drove Botticelli's limbs and creativity to recapture an unacceptable loss. Simonetta died in 1476 from tuberculosis; her beauty shining with a sickly glamour, her blankets sprayed with blood, like scarlet mists from Venus' sea.
It was Botticelli's request to be buried at Simonetta's feet, a request that was honored. He lies there as a victim of beauty's tyranny, a symbol of humility and exhausted passion, beating against distant shores.