Portraits and fashion
Sandro Botticelli is best known for his masterpieces The Birth of Venus and Primavera, but during his prolific career, Botticelli also painted several portraits of contemporary Renaissance Florentines — including Portrait of a Young Woman, currently held in Florence’s Pitti Palace.
Portraits of early modern women are especially important art historical survivals, because less information is known about women’s lives in this period. Although the figure in Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Woman lacks flashing jewels and eye-catching brocades (as featured in this portrait by Pollaiuolo), likenesses such as this one elucidate upper-class women’s daily lived experience. While Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Woman may strike modern viewers as simple, the picture showcases early modern Florentine gender roles through its depiction of dress.
Depicted clothing provides key iconographic clues for art and fashion historians. During the Renaissance, clothing signaled social rank, marital status, and gender differentiation. Public dress for the upper classes was ostentatious, expensive, and designed to be attention grabbing, with intricately patterned and brightly dyed silks. However, indoor clothing was much simpler, especially for women.
Florentine Renaissance women and men lived in very different worlds. Generally, men supervised the public-facing business domain, while women oversaw the management of the domestic sphere. While there were many exceptions to this dichotomy, upper-class wives usually oversaw the daily running of the household.
Indeed, it is safe to assume the woman in Botticelli’s painting is married, based on her dressed-down, indoor style. Her bound-up hair, for example, was a typical hairstyle for married women (unmarried women commonly wore their hair down). Further, this figure is doubtless an upper-class woman, based on the sturdiness of her gown and its fine details (and, of course, because her family was wealthy enough to commission a portrait from a famous painter).
Clothing and status
While the dress in Portrait of a Young Woman is unassuming, it is not cheap. The overgown—the outermost dress layer—is tailored from a plain brown material, possibly cotton. Using a heartier textile assured the gown would last for years of indoor wear. This dress was designed for supervising the home, including tasks like instructing servants and overseeing deliveries. It was meant to be moved in. The figure’s waist is encased in deep pleats. Her skirts push forward, and are so full with extra fabric that she has shoved her hands into their depths via pockets. Her brown locks are swept up in a simple cotton cap.
Clues confirming the figure’s high status embellish the plain outfit. A black ribbon necklace, possibly ending in an unseen cross pendant, (a popular accessory at the time), hangs from her neck. This woman wears at least one undergown, which can be seen peeking from the edges of her neckline, beneath the frontal laces. The undergarment has also been pulled out from sleeve gaps at the arm seam and elbow. A sheer lace partlet modestly covers her shoulders, and a translucent material, possibly silk or more lace, completes the bonnet to shield her hair, a symbol of wifely rejection of vanity.
The woman stands before a frame, possibly to a door or a window, a device which confirms the figure is pictured indoors — adhering to cultural norms. Although married Renaissance women were generally associated with indoor spaces, upper-class wives still led vibrant social lives. This plain brown dress, as typical private daywear, would have been appropriate garb for hosting friends and relatives at home. While much subdued as opposed to the type of costume an upper-class woman would adopt for public outings, the outfit worn by Portrait of a Young Woman provides viewers with an intimate glimpse into the Renaissance home.
“I Could Not See Her to My Satisfaction”
It is possible the woman pictured in Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Woman is Clarice Orsini, a daughter of the noble Roman Orsini family. In June of 1469, at the age of nineteen, Clarice Orsini married the de facto prince of Florence, Lorenzo the Magnificent de’Medici. The Medici were merchant bankers and the most powerful family in Florence, so a marriage into a prominent and aristocratic Roman family served to further solidify their planned dominance of Tuscany. If the figure in Portrait of a Young Woman is indeed Clarice Orsini, Botticelli, as a Medici court painter, was tasked with creating a humble portrait of Lorenzo de’Medici’s virtuous wife assuming appropriate, indoor female gentility.
As with most political marriages, Clarice and Lorenzo’s bond was arranged by the couple’s parents. Lucrezia de’Medici, Lorenzo’s mother and the matriarch of the Medici family, wrote letters to her Florentine kin when she visited Rome to meet with Clarice’s parents and assess the girl’s aptitude towards a union with her son. In March 1467, Lucrezia reported back to her husband Piero de’Medici about the potential alliance between the Medici and Orsini. In the letter, Lucrezia segments the shy Clarice to her smallest attributes, describing her hair color, hands, and posture to Piero. Lucrezia wished to know whether the prospective adolescent bride seemed physically qualified for childbearing and furthering of Medicean lineage. Indeed, Lucrezia complains twice in the same letter that she could not get a clear look at Clarice’s body during her visit.
The Medici mother grumbles that her intense parental vision was impeded by a Roman lenzuolo (a long, breezy cloak) Clarice wore, objecting:
in this dress she seemed to me handsome, fair, tall, but being covered up I could not see her to my satisfaction.Lucrezia Tornabuoni and Cesare Guasti, Tre lettere di Lucrezia Tornabuoni a Piero de’ Medici ed altre lettere di vari concernenti al matrimonio di Lorenzo il Magnifico con Clarice Orsini ricordo di Nozze nel gennaio 1859, ([Cesare Guasti] per Felice Le Monnier, 1859), p. 9.
A few lines later, Lucrezia continues to decry her inability to speculate on the girl’s form, lamenting “her bosom I could not see, as here the women are entirely covered up, but it appeared to me of good proportions.” Lucrezia’s letters clarify how important clothing and beauty was to the political and social movements of the Renaissance world. The Medici matriarch’s concern proved needless, as Clarice gave birth to ten children, six of whom survived into adulthood. One of Clarice’s sons even grew up to be Pope Leo X.
The intimacy displayed by the figure’s dress is rare for the period, and offers a unique glimpse into how public and private notions of Renaissance womanhood diverged. Comparing Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Woman (possibly Clarice Orsini) with another, slightly earlier painting, also entitled Portrait of a Young Woman, clarifies the wide range of female beauty standards in Renaissance Florence.
While Botticelli depicts Clarice Orsini in indoor garb, this young lady, in stark contrast, is portrayed in fantastical dress. Fantastical dress is an imagined clothing style, depicted in images as even more ostentatious than common public wear. Some scholars have linked fantastical dress to Florentine public processions, which often included a costume element called “disguisement.”
In this Portrait of a Young Woman, Botticelli has broken with strict profile to give the viewer a hint of the sitter’s left hazel eye. Lace detailing enlivens her white gown with its pink undergarment. The figure’s neck is long and slender, and her forehead is elongated with thinly-plucked eyebrows, both of which were considered attractive physical attributes at the time.
Her hair is blonde, the shade considered most beautiful for women in the period, which is why many Renaissance depictions of Mary show the Mother of God with golden-colored hair. Sprays of feathers spring from the broach in the figure’s hair, and pearls (symbols of chastity and sometimes pregnancy) dot the hairstyle. With its braids, ribbons, curls, and intricate knotting, it is unlikely this coiffure could have been achieved in reality.
A fabled beauty
Some scholars believe the woman pictured in this image is Simonetta Vespucci, another contemporary Florentine woman associated with the Medici family. Simonetta Vespucci was the “it-girl” of Quattrocento Florence, considered one of the most beautiful women in the city. Both Medici male heirs, Lorenzo de’Medici the Magnificent and his younger brother Giuliano de’Medici, publicly declared their admiration for Simonetta.
Signs identifying Simonetta’s connection with the Medici are found in the figure’s jewelry; the cameo hanging from her neck depicts a scene of the Greek god Apollo flaying Marsyas for displeasing him. The Medici, possibly Lorenzo himself, owned a very similar cameo.
In 1476, Simonetta Vespucci died tragically young at the age of twenty-two, likely of tuberculosis. The entire city of Florence mourned her loss. Botticelli, therefore, may have created this likeness posthumously. After her death, Botticelli created many similar portraits of fantastically beautiful young women, which also may or may not portray Simonetta Vespucci.
Indeed, some scholars even believe Venus and Flora in the Birth of Venus and Primavera, respectively, were also inspired by the real-life Florentine beauty queen. When creating his compositions such as the iconic Birth of Venus, Botticelli often collaborated with the Medici court poet, Poliziano, who wrote many versus praising Simonetta Vespucci’s beauty.
Types of beauty
Both of the Botticelli portraits discussed in this essay — of young, Florentine women — showcase wildly different visual conceptions of Renaissance female beauty. Together, the images tell a story about legacy, patriarchy, and two women deeply connected to and beloved by one of the most powerful and influential dynasties in early modern Europe.
- Charles Dempsey, “The End of the Masquerade,” Inventing the Renaissance Putto (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2001), 203-208.
Charles Dempsey, “The End of the Masquerade,” Inventing the Renaissance Putto (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2001).
Claudia Wedepohl, “Why Botticelli?: Aby Warburg’s Search for a New Approach to Quattrocento Italian Art.” In Botticelli Past and Present, edited by Ana Debenedetti and Caroline Elam (UCL Press, 2019), pp. 83–202.
Janet Ross, Lives of the Early Medici: As Told in Their Correspondence, (R.G. Badger, 1911).
Lucrezia Tornabuoni and Cesare Guasti, Tre lettere di Lucrezia Tornabuoni a Piero de’ Medici ed altre lettere di vari concernenti al matrimonio di Lorenzo il Magnifico con Clarice Orsini ricordo di Nozze nel gennaio 1859, ([Cesare Guasti] per Felice Le Monnier, 1859).
Patricia Simons, “Women in Frames, the Gaze, the Eye, the Profile in Renaissance Portraiture.” History Workshop Journal 25, no. 1 (1988), pp. 4–30.