Since Botticelli painted Venus, stepping naked out of her giant scallop shell in the roseate dawn light, her skin still pink and fresh from her birth out of the sea foam, her hair glistening with real gold, her hand bashfully attempting to cover her breasts, the identity of the model who sat for her has been a mystery. Most art historians doubt that anyone painted nudes from life in the 1480s. Still less female nudes. Others are less sure. After all, Botticelli was the first artist known to have painted a full-length, monumental female nude for over 1000 years, so who is to say whether he worked from memory, imagination, classical models or life? Besides, there has long been a Florentine tradition that behind the idealised deity there was indeed real, earthly flesh.
The painting, and the arguments over the model’s identity, hooked me some five years ago, when I was scrabbling around for a new book idea. I’d just finished The Book of Love (2007), my cultural history of the Kamasutra — a much-misunderstood ancient Indian text with a distinctly racy Victorian afterlife. For my new book, I needed another significant artwork or text. Ideally, I wanted another cultural icon with a rich philosophical hinterland, a back-story of lost or missing versions, a legacy of being traduced or misrepresented and a strong odour of scandal. And, ideally, I wanted it to come from the West, not the East. As a writer, I didn’t want to box myself into an oriental corner.
I started thinking about the Italian Renaissance. The period had been close to my heart since I’d worked on Rough Guides to Florence and Venice. As a possible subject, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus was one of the early frontrunners, partly for the simple reason that I had long adored her — a university girlfriend had pinned a postcard of her above her desk, and I’d done homage to her repeatedly in the Uffizi. I began filling in the gaps in my knowledge, going back to Florence, and reading everything I could find on Botticelli, trying to unpick the layered symbolism of the image, and the complex philosophical and political context of its creation.
So there I was, one morning, sitting at my desk, pondering a zoomable, ultra-high-resolution digital image of the Birth of Venus. If you look at a painting for long enough, returning to it repeatedly, particular shapes and colours seem to emerge from the picture’s surface while others retreat. It’s like watching carp swimming in a murky river, or grappling with those posters that conceal 3D images. Often, something of seemingly glaring significance leaps out at you — something which, unaccountably, you never noticed before.
I can point to a dozen details in the painting that sprung themselves on me in this way. There was the moment, for instance, when I suddenly noticed the folded lock of Venus’s long hair just above her left hand, and how its shape suggested – so artfully yet so explicitly – the very thing it concealed. I felt tremors of excitement as, on studying Venus’s hand more closely, I saw how her fingers were buried in further coils of hair. I realised that Botticelli had not only dared to paint an accurate image of what was once called a pudendum (‘a shameful thing’), he had shown the woman – this woman, this Venus – caressing it.
And then it happened, the big one — a violent lurch of the brain, accompanied by a roaring in the blood, and a surging of something wildly effervescent from the perineum to the top of the spinal column. I was studying the anonymous strip of coastline, trying to see if it might be anything more than a generic slice of verdant landscape, when it jumped out of the mix: the conspicuously odd shape making up the collar of the pink mantle held out by the Hora of Spring. Botticelli was quite capable of painting extravagant folds in cloth, for the sheer joy of painting them – just look at the blue cloak flapping around Zephyrus – but this was oddly precise and studied. It looked like something. It looked like a harbour, in fact. Could it be a real, identifiable one? Could there be a clue to the identity of the model for Venus, encoded in the painting itself?
I know: I felt like a character in a pseudo-historical airport thriller. I needed evidence, not wild hunches. But I found what I was looking for, eventually, in old maps and in the findings of infrared reflectography.
In Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, in the Guardaroba Nuova, the ‘new wardrobe’ commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici, the 53 wooden cabinet doors are painted with an extraordinary sequence of accurate charts. In the view of Genoa, portrayed as a deep bay bracketed by two distinctive promontories, and subtly shaped into two pools by a central swelling, I found the outline of the mantle’s collar.
This map was painted 100 years after the Birth of Venus, but could it have drawn on the same sources that Botticelli knew? In the 1480s and 90s, Genoese navigators led the world — Columbus himself was from Genoa. What charts did they own? The Ford Bell Library in Minnesota owns a giant map of the entire Mediterranean coast, drawn up by Albino de Canepa, a Genoese, in 1489. Genoa, as you’d expect on a chart drawn up by one of the city’s own sons, dominates visually, depicted in a lavish ink drawing of towering battlements, turrets and palace walls, all surrounding a wash of blue: the harbour. Again, it is the same shape as in Botticelli’s painting, and clearly shows the jutting promontory on the eastern harbour wall. The same is found again in the 1473 Grazioso Benincasa atlas, proud possession of the British Library.
I felt excited, but disturbed. This was exactly the kind of clue-seeking codswallop that serious art historians liked to disparage. And even if Botticelli was hiding a reference to Genoa in his painting, he might just be honouring, say, the painting’s patron — who also remains unknown, despite a century of scholarly archive-searching.
As it happens, Florentine tradition has long maintained that there was a real model, and her name was Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci. She was a celebrated beauty in 1480s Florence. Cattaneo was the name of her father’s family; they were well-connected aristocrats — from Genoa. Vespucci was her husband’s name; he was a Florentine, and a cousin of Amerigo Vespucci — the same Amerigo who gave his Christian name to the newly discovered continent of America. The poet Poliziano praised her by name in a poem that also described her as ‘carried on a conch shell, wafted to shore by playful zephyrs… pressing her hair with her right hand, covering with the other her sweet mound of flesh’.
Then there was the infrared reflectography, which revealed that the gilded collar was added after the painting was largely complete. Surely that was suggestive of its particular importance? OK, this was far from a closed case — but then neither are most of the other attributions of identity in Renaissance paintings. What really mattered to me, however, was the bigger cultural context. I felt a growing sense that other writers had missed, ignored or perhaps even sidelined a hugely significant element of the Florentine Renaissance — its burgeoning eroticism. They would gloss the sensual as neo-Platonic, for instance, arguing that it was only really there to draw the mind upwards to higher forms of love.
I felt that the lost story of that erotic tradition needed to be told. When I discovered that Botticelli had been all but forgotten for a good couple of centuries, before being rediscovered by a group of dubious 19th-century aesthetes, and when I learned that the Birth of Venus itself had festered unseen in a country villa all that time — well, I knew I had a story, and a book. I wrote my proposal, excitedly.
Five years later, I return to my abandoned idea as a dog returns to its vomit — except that, unlike the dog, I can’t even seem to find what I need. I track the document down to my old laptop, the one that almost died. I type ‘Botticelli’ into the file finder, and my proposal springs up in front of me, crisp in its ever-fresh digital form.
I start reading it, asking myself, ‘what was I thinking?’ No wonder no-one wanted to publish it… The writing was leaden, the exposition halting, the argument obscure.
Except, as I read on, I began to remember why I’d so burned to write the book in the first place. I felt like you feel when you come across a photograph of an ex-girlfriend – you are no longer the person you once were but, momentarily, part of you is transported back into your old self – and that part remembers, keenly, what it felt like to love her. Simonetta, in short, had not quite let go of me, and I was acting like the deluded ex-lover who believes he can rekindle an old, dead relationship.
Yet my notion of the hidden clue squirms at me afresh. Don’t I have a responsibility to let the idea fly? It might be shot down. But what if I was right? My research feels too distant for me to be sure, now, so I do what everyone does when researching a specific issue, these days. I do a quick google. I try various permutations of search terms: ‘Botticelli’, ‘Venus’, ‘Hora’, ‘Flora’, ‘nymph’, ‘cloak’, ‘mantle’, ‘clue’, ‘Simonetta’. No; no one seems to have commented on what I thought I saw five years ago. But then, if it has remained secret for 500 years, what’s another five?