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Nigel Goodman - Botticelli's pin-up

Blog | By Nigel Goodman | Oct 21, 2022

The Birth of Venus: On the left are Zephyr, god of the warm west wind, and his wife, Chloris, from whom fall pink rose blooms. In the middle is Venus. On the right of the picture is the Attendant Hour figure. It is a profile portrait of Caterina Sforza – with her long, cascading, golden hair, a yellow Sforza knot on her sleeve, the Sforza emblem of an olive-branch garland and a white dress embroidered with cornflowers, an emblem she shares with Chiron (see Minerva and the Centaur).

Nigel Goodman unmasks the real model for the artist’s masterpieces

Nigel Goodman has made a new identification of Botticelli’s famed golden-ringleted beauty, who appears in so many of his greatest paintings.

For over a century, she was thought to be la bella Simonetta – Simonetta Vespucci (1453-26th April 1476), the Genoese wife of Marco Vespucci of Florence.

Nigel Goodman argues that she is in fact Caterina Sforza, daughter of the Duke of Milan. Botticelli’s paintings of her were commissioned not in Florence, as is often said, but in Rome from 1481 to 1485. Caterina’s third husband was Girolamo Riario, nephew of Sixtus IV, who commissioned the Sistine Chapel frescoes from Botticelli – using Caterina as a model.

The Frankfurt portrait: Caterina wears a huge head brooch with an enormous pink pearl. Caterina is almost always found wearing the pearls she clearly loved in real life.

She also loved the most expensive clothing fabrics: byssus or sea silk, the transparent material worn by the Three Graces; and kermes, the dyed red silk of the cloaks of Venus and Mercury in Primavera (which are edged in pearls and patterned in gold thread).

Caterina Sforza then was the model for the Three Graces in Primavera, for Minerva in Minerva and the Centaur, for Venus in Venus and Mars and for the Attendant to Venus in The Birth of Venus. She also appears in the Frankfurt portrait.

Her characteristics are her long, golden hair, either in loose tresses cascading down her back or made up into an elaborate coif; a high forehead with the distinctive Sforza curls; high, arched eyebrows; an oval face with an impeccable white complexion; and a firm chin. She was regarded as one of the great beauties of her day.

Primavera (Spring) – an allegory for Spring: All three Graces in the picture are images of Caterina.

As the lefthand Grace in Primavera, Caterina is wearing an oak-leaf brooch (associated with the Rovere family, into which she married) with four huge pearls and a large ruby. As the third Grace, she also has an oak-leaf brooch.

Caterina is often shown wearing expensive jewels, especially pink or white pearls.

The heads of the second and third Graces look like the Botticelli’s depiction of Caterina in Healing of the Leper, a Sistine Chapel fresco.

Two of the portraits in this article have the golden knots of the Sforzas on their sleeves. All have the coiffure, jewellery and facial characteristics that are recognisably hers. All have the predominant red and white colours of the Sforza family.

In three of these portraits, she faces to the right in the ‘heraldic dexter’ position normally occupied by a male. Caterina emerges from this new study as one of the most outstanding Renaissance women, who commissioned many paintings. She was the leading lady in Rome from 1477 to 1484, and was Regent in Forli from 1488 to 1500.

Venus and Mars – the goddess of love and the god of war: As Venus in Venus and Mars, Caterina wears a brooch with a large queen-conch pink pearl surrounded by eight perfectly round white pearls. Images of Caterina in the Sistine wall frescoes in Rome also show her wearing this same piece of jewellery. In one fresco (below right), Botticelli depicts her as the shepherdess with Moses at the well, where she has a line of expensive pink pearls along her hair parting.

The resemblance of Venus to the Sistine Chapel portraits of Caterina is clear.

Caterina developed gardens wherever she lived, and initiated the cultivation of citrus fruit in Tuscany after retiring there in 1501. She was related to many of the leading families in Italy and had contact with many of the leading artists of her day. Her best-known saying was ‘I bend my knee to no man unless I so choose.’

Her descendants ruled Tuscany for 200 years, from 1537.

Botticelli and Caterina: A new interpretation by Nigel Goodman is out now (First, £20)

Minerva and the Centaur: This painting is a homage to two great mythological figures associated with healing.

Caterina had a lifelong interest in homeopathic medicine. She compiled one of the best 15th-century accounts of homeopathic treatments and cosmetics, called Gli Experimenti.

Minerva Medica was also a healing god (and the patron goddess of doctors). In the picture, with that likeness to Caterina, she comes to comfort Chiron, who is dying of a poisoned hoof and cannot cure himself. He becomes a constellation in the sky. The pretty blue cornflower, Centaurea, is named after him.

Caterina identified closely with him. The white dress of Flora in Primavera is partly covered with cornflowers, and the white dress of the Attendant to Venus in The Birth of Venus is completely covered in cornflowers. You can further identify Minerva as Caterina because she has the golden-knot motif of the Sforza family stitched to her dress.

In the Sistine Chapel, Events in the Life of Moses shows Caterina as a shepherdess. Her face echoes that of the first Grace in Primavera