No matter how you say it, it’s chock full of beautiful women in various stages of undress. Sometimes holding a boob. Sometimes not. But always breathtaking in a centuries-long celebration of beauty, composition and that little dimply bit just above the buttocks.
Amongst all the lady-portraits, angels, Madonnas and Venuses that streamed from Italian easels during the 15th and 16th centuries were thousands of models, muses and paragons of loveliness. But who was the loveliest?
Of all the people who were capable of sitting in a chair for a very long time, Lisa Gherardini is the most famous. Her fame began when her husband, Francesco del Giocondo, was at a tavern with a friend, a bit sloshed on local Florentine wine.
“You’re wife’s ok,” slurred the friend, “but she’s no oil painting,” to which Giocondo replied, “We’ll just see about THAT!” Then a whole lot of stuff happened and Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the history of the world.
But why is it so famous? I don’t get it. It’s Lisa sitting in front of some squiggly rivers. It’s a good painting and all, but Leonardo did better. The man invented a helicopter in the 1400s, for chrissakes. Surely that’s worth more of a celebration than a picture of a silk merchant’s wife with an “I just popped one off” look on her face.
Nope. Not exciting enough.
If you’ve ever seen a painting by Raphael, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the likeness of Margarita Luti. The artist not only painted two proper portraits of her – La donna velata and La Fornarina - but she also appears in dozens of his other works.
Raphael’s artistic genius was dwarfed only by his reputation as an enormous hornbag, and Margarita was by far his favourite lover. Claiming that he was too distracted to work without her nearby, it is said the artist managed to sneak her in to the palaces where he painted murals and other commissions, to be by his side. She provided him with company, inspiration, frequent and long-winded bonk fests and probably a few cups of tea.
Some art historians think that the La Fornarina portrait provides evidence that Raphael and Margarita were secretly married. In it, Margarita appears before a myrtle bush, a symbol of fidelity. She also wears a small ruby ring on her left hand, and an armband bearing Raphael’s name. These delicious little hints were the only way an artist could communicate secret messages in an age before backmasking and crop circles.
Whatever the truth of their relationship, Margarita Luti was hot enough to have her face painted on palace walls and to satisfy one of the most libidinous lads of the picture-painting profession.
Having a pretty face and enthusiasm for pantsless activities was one thing. But if you’re after a bit more substance in your portrait-poser, look no further than Veronica Franco.
Franco posed for numerous portraits by Tintoretto, whom she met amongst many others of Venetian fame or nobility, in her role as a cotrigiana onesta, or Posh Kind Of Courtesan. Her job, which she learned from her mother, was to entertain the gentility of Venice with music, conversation and poetry.
Here’s where the substance comes in. Franco turned out two volumes of poetry, several books of letters and a few anthologies of other poets’ works. She was able to support herself very comfortably indeed thank you very much, with the art of her mind as well as the charm of her body.
But this is called the Hot and the Dead, not the Hot, Dead And Also Quite Brainy And Accomplished. Substance isn’t worth the canvas it’s sploshed on.
So here, ladies and gentlemen, is the hottest of all hot Renaissance paint-candy. Simonetta Vespucci, otherwise known as La Bella Simonetta or simply “Phwoar”.
Born to a Genoese nobleman in about 1453, Simonetta married Marco Vespucci, a distant relative of the guy who helped chart and name America, in her teens. Marco was well connected in the Florentine court, and no sooner had he turned up to some fancy Italian shindig with his delightfully ginger wife than everyone fell in love with her.
In Renaissance Florence, “everyone” included Giuliano Medici, who entered a jousting tournament in 1475 bearing a banner painted with Simonetta’s image, and Sandro Boticelli, who included her image in his paintings several years after her death of tuberculosis at age 22.
Because of the irritating habit of people who lived hundreds of years ago to not write things down properly, it is unclear how many paintings Simonetta Vespucci appeared in. But it is widely accepted that she is the subject of Piero di Cosimo’s Portrait of a woman, and entirely likely that she is Boticelli’s Venus in both Primavera and The Birth of Venus. There’s also an outside chance that she appears in Boticelli’s Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci.
Boticelli outlived Simonetta by 34 years, and was buried at her feet in the Church of Ognissanti in Florence, which he reportedly requested. Now, after staring at her image for the last hour, I’ve half a mind to request the same.