For the average New Yorker, an afternoon at the Met might mean a leisurely stroll through one of the many galleries. Even for an art lover like me, it’s easy to glide through a museum this big without really taking in what’s there. To the untrained eye, all of the Medieval depictions of the Madonna look the same and all of the portraits of anonymous noblemen blend together. But every now and then, there is a work of art so beautiful that it can stop you in your tracks.
In the Renaissance Portrait exhibit currently at the Metropolitan Museum, there are two portraits by Botticelli that brought me right back to Tuscany. Displayed side by side, the two paintings are both called “Portrait of an Ideal Lady” and are said to be depictions of Simonetta Vespucci, a noblewoman from Genoa who became known as the most beautiful woman in Florence when she married Marco Vespucci (a distant cousin of Amerigo Vespucci) and was introduced to the Florentine Court. With her fair skin and golden hair, she supposedly entranced the Medici brothers as well. At La Giostra, a jousting tournament, Giuliano de’ Medici brought a banner depicting Simonetta as a Pallas Athena painted by Botticelli himself.
She may have been the Renaissance master’s inspiration for The Birth of Venus, though the claim that Venus was painted in her likeness is disputed by art historians. Still, it’s easy to see the resemblance between the Portrait of an Ideal Lady and the Venus that Botticelli painted nine years after her death. I remember strolling leisurely through the galleries of the Uffizi in Florence and being stopped dead in my tracks by the Birth of Venus. It was an evening when the museum was open late, but luckily the crowds of tourists had already come and gone, so I had the place almost all to myself. When I arrived in the room where the famous painting was displayed, I was so awe-struck by how masterful and monumental it was that I sat down on the bench in front of it to stare for minutes on end. I could have stayed an hour, taking in all the details of the golden hair, the alabaster skin, the forlorn expression in her eyes. Seeing Botticelli’s portraits of Simonetta Vespucci at the Met, it’s easy to imagine such a woman moving gracefully through the halls of Palazzo Pitti, her long gown trailing on the ground as she is followed by hopeful admirers. This masterfully curated portrait exhibit gives us a glimpse into Botticelli’s Italy.
The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini
December 21, 2011 – March 18, 2012
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street)
New York, NY 10028
Get in touch with the author at @LauraItzkowitz