Two profile portraits by two different artists, but could the images be of the same woman? The portrait on the left is an early metal point drawing by Leonardo da Vinci and part of the Royal Collection Trust. The painting is by Sandro Botticelli and housed in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti. It’s date attribution is 1475 which, if accurate, could probably apply to Leonardo’s drawing as well.
As to the woman’s identity, several names have been postulated by art historians. The gallery favours Simonetta Vespucci and has titled the painting Bella Simonetta. I favour Fioretta Gorini, the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici, said to have fathered her child Giulio who later went on to become Pope Clement VII.
Domenico Ghirlandaio, another Florentine painter, portrayed Fioretta in some of the frescoes he produced for the Tornabuoni Chapel, one of which I pointed out in a recent post. Fioretta is also depicted in the Tornabuoni Chapel frescoes titled The Birth of John the Baptist, and Zechariah Writes Down the Name of his Son.
In the Birth fresco Fioretta is shown reaching out to nurse the child. Her profile is very similar to that in Botticelli’s painting. In the Naming fresco Fioretta is seen holding the swaddled infant and, as pointed out in a previous post Zechariah takes on the identity of Leonardo to link to his painting of Fioretta Gorini but whose identity is mistakingly attributed to Ginevra de Benci.
So what did become of Fioretta Gorini after she gave birth? My understanding is that she became an anchoress in a Carmelite convent attached to the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, which still exists today. Leonardo, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio attest to this in their paintings, Botticelli in particular.
But Ghirlandaio’s Visitation fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel is perhaps the most explicit reference in any painting that reveals Fioretta became an anchoress. I showed in an earlier post the connection between the two handmaidens standing behind Elizabeth. The woman nearest is Fioretta as she looks in Leonardo’s so-called Portrait of Ginevra de Benci, housed in Washington’s National Gallery of Art. The half-hidden figure represents the Virgin of Carmel, portrayed in another guise as Venus in Botticelli’s Primavera.
The pairing is a reference to Fioretta retreating from secular life to become an anchoress in a Carmelite convent. Notice the right hand of the Carmel Virgin raised in greeting. Observe also Fioretta’s right hand clasped or ‘anchored’ to her left wrist. This motif is adapted from Botticelli’s Primavera and the figure of Chloris’s right hand shaped to be grafted or ‘anchored’ to the Flora’s thigh. Chloris’s other identity is Fioretta Gorini.
Attached to the back of Chloris is the wind god Zephyrus. Attached to the back of the Leonardo’s version of Fioretta in the Visitation fresco is a red building. This is the church of Santa Maria del Carmine.
Returning to the two portraits at the top of the post, notice the darkened branch-shape fold at the base of the woman’s cap in Leonardo’s drawing. A similar shape is seen in the Botticelli painting.
The branch shape in Leonardo’s depiction of Fioretta is likely to have been the inspiration that appears in the trees in the Ginevra de Benci (aka Fioretta Gorini) painting by Leonardo. The branch serves two purposes: to identify the bear silhouette representing St Gallo and so a connection to Antonio da Sangallo whose family cared for Fioretta’s son for the first seven years of his life, but also as a symbol representing the letter ‘Y’ and its Pythagorus association as a choice of two paths that can be taken in life.
Isidore of Seville, a Spanish cleric, wrote: “Pythagorus of Samos formed the letter Y as an example of human life; its lower branch signifies the first stage, obviously because one is still uncertain and at this stage submits oneself either to the vices or the virtues. The fork in the road begins with adolescence. Its right path is arduous, but conducts to the blessed life; the left one is easier but leads to pernicious death.”
Leonardo has depicted Fioretta in his painting as taking the narrow, arduous path in becoming an anchoress..
Ghirlandaio echoes the two branches as two sets of supports for the drawbridge feature in The Visitation fresco. In fact, the main theme in the fresco is about support, evidenced in the pairing of Elizabeth and her cousin Mary ‘supporting’ each other.
Finally, the ‘anchored’ hand feature, showing Fioretta’s right hand ‘resting’ on her left wrist does appear to be an unnatural pose, more associated with a subject who is seated and and having their left arm supported on the arm of a chair. But in this image we see Fioretta’s left hand gripping her mantle and revealing a mysterious image beneath her left wrist. It represents a ‘Holy Face’ borrowed from the Primavera painting, more of which I shall explain in a future post.