Book Review: The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence by Alyssa Palombo

The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence…

About the Book:

In 15th Century Italy, a girl as beautiful as Simonetta Cattaneo never wants for marriage proposals. When Marco Vespucci – a handsome young man, highly favoured by the Medici in Florence – asks for her hand, she eagerly accepts.

Even before her wedding is set, Simonetta is swept into a glittering circle of politicians, poets, artists and philosophers. The men of Florence – most notably the rakish Giuliano de’Medici – are enthralled with her beauty. That she is educated and an ardent reader of poetry makes her more desirable still. But it is her acquaintance with a young painter, Sandro Botticelli, which strikes her heart.

As Simonetta learns to navigate her marriage, her place in Florentine society, and the politics of beauty and desire, she and Botticelli develop a passionate intimacy, one that leads to her immortalisation in his masterpiece, The Birth of Venus.

Alyssa Palombo’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence captures the dangerous allure of the bond between artist and muse with candour and unforgettable passion.

9781925481167

My Thoughts:

The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence is a splendid novel of historical fiction, its story richly draped in the culture of the Renaissance and woven tightly with threads of passion and indulgence. It’s a most perfect study of life at the top in a changing social order, the constraints of being a woman of noble birth, and the curse that comes with possessing beauty that is revered by all.

Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci was a real woman in history. During her tragically short life she was regarded, in actual fact, as the most beautiful woman in Florence. So beautiful, that upon her death, thousands followed her funeral procession through the streets of Florence, her coffin left open so that all could gaze upon her famed beauty one last time. I agree with the author’s views on the morbidity of this. Yet this fanfare attached to her burial is reminiscent of the fanfare attached to her living days. She lived her life like a celebrity, known all through Florence, men crowding in front of her house in the hopes for a glimpse of her, people picking up her dropped gloves or hankies to keep as a favour, women copying her hairstyles and dresses; gossip about her was virulent. She moved to Florence when she was sixteen, to marry Marco Vespucci, a handsome young noble who promised her a culture infused existence in Florence, and she died there at around the age of twenty-two from consumption, a condition she had suffered from for years.

The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence is a work of fiction based upon a real woman and a handful of facts known about her. I really enjoyed the author’s interpretation of Simonetta’s life and there are several events and circumstances included in this story that are grounded in fact, as per the author’s notes at the end of the novel. I absolutely love novels based upon the history of art and literature, particularly those that orbit around a real person whose work we still revere in the modern day, along with stories about the people that inspired these artists. They have become in recent times a favourite topic for me within the very large genre that is historical fiction. Alyssa Palombo writes so well, her descriptions of art so vivid and placed so authentically within their setting. I could see, in my mind, so clearly some of the artworks she described, and a quick search on Google confirmed just how close my imagination was in each instance. What a skill, to bring what is pictured to life so beautifully in words. The emotion infused into this story was divine, and I spent much of this novel reading it while on the verge of tears. There were just so many scenes of beauty and deep meaning. I really loved this story and I have already downloaded Alyssa’s first novel, as it sounds equally as wonderful as what this one turned out to be.

Simonetta certainly lived a life of luxury and cultural decadence. Her husband was wealthy and well respected, despite his young age, and handsome too. In the early years of their marriage, the two were quite in love, but sadly, not that much in love to withstand the trials of outside forces. Marco was more in love with Simonetta’s beauty and the doors that it opened for him, particularly the ones at the de Medici villa. As well as beautiful, Simonetta was educated and intelligent, so she fit right into the Florentine scene of poets, artists and philosophers. She was highly appreciated by Lorenzo de Medici, a man known through history as Lorenzo the Magnificent. He was a political genius who reigned as the de facto ruler of republican Florence, and was a true patron of the arts and of learning, cultivating the careers of many well known artists and writers. His younger brother, Giuliano, was obsessed with Simonetta from their first meeting. Despite being engaged, and later married, to his best friend, Giuliano openly flirted with and propositioned Simonetta endlessly, even going so far as to have a banner painted in her image by Botticelli for his jousting ceremony, where he openly declared his love for her in front of her husband and all of Florence by requesting her favour. The pressure this placed on the already strained marriage between Simonetta and Marco was profound.

To view beauty as a curse seems ironic, but Alyssa Palombo demonstrates this with such authenticity throughout Simonetta’s story. She is a young woman who has been objectified for her entire life.

“What is it about beauty, I wondered one day, squinting at a bit of embroidery, which makes men think they have the right to desire you? That beauty means you automatically agree, somehow, to be coveted, to be desired? That your beauty belongs to everyone?”

While Simonetta makes this reflection quite late in the novel, it’s a theme that recurs throughout. It’s no wonder she fell so deeply in love with Sandro Botticelli. I love this observation Simonetta makes upon their first meeting:

“He paused as he continued to contemplate my face, yet not with the avaricious desire with which men usually studied it; nor with the envious, calculating gaze of most women. Rather, he considered my face as though he would unlock its secrets; as though he would solve the puzzle of how I was so beautiful. ‘I should like to paint you,’ he said finally.”

Much later, when the two profess their love, Botticelli refutes Simonetta’s suggestion that he fell in love with her the moment he first saw her face.

“I could see that you are beautiful. But I did not love you until that day when I first asked you to pose for me, when we spoke of philosophy and the Church and learning.”

Theirs was a love of restraint, spread over many years, separated by class and circumstances out of their own control. A love, in truth, that was never meant to be. And yet it was, it prevailed, and it lasted well beyond Simonetta’s death. Two facts: Botticelli painted two incredible works with, it is widely believed, Simonetta as the subject — Portrait of a Lady and The Birth of Venus — after her death. Upon his own death, he was buried at her feet. His grave is open to the public, situated at the base of Simonetta’s grave. Muse or great love? To my mind, great love. In the 15th and 16th century, people were still deeply superstitious about the afterlife, and despite being educated and philosophical people, they were still Catholic, and when faced with death, that would have weighed in. To be buried together indicates to me a wish to be together in the afterlife, and Botticelli’s request that he lay prostrate at Simonetta’s feet, tells me that he loved her more than anything, a reverent love that endured their early parting and remained with him for the rest of his life. That’s my take on it anyway.

So clearly, I really loved this novel and have given it a lot of thought. The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence is such a fine historical novel, rich in atmosphere and passionately involving, it contains everything I want from an historical and more. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.


About the Author:

Alyssa Palombo is the author of The Violinist of Venice and The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence. She has published short fiction pieces in Black Lantern Magazine and The Great Lakes Review. She is a recent graduate of Canisius College with degrees in English and creative writing. A passionate music lover, she is a classically trained musician as well as a big fan of heavy metal. She lives in Buffalo, New York.


9781925481167

The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence was published in 2017 by Pan Macmillan Australia.


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