The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, by Alyssa Palombo
Genre: Historical fiction
Published: 25 April 2017, Macmillan Australia
In a nutshell
A gorgeously written story of a beautiful young woman’s discovery of love, art and poetry in Renaissance Florence.
What it’s about
The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence is the imagined story behind the painting of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. It follows 16-year-old Simonetta Cattaneo as she moves from her home city of Genoa to marry wealthy banker Marco Vespucci.
Initially a love match, Simonetta is soon wholly seduced by the intellectual and artistic renaissance of 15th century Florence. An intelligent and beautiful young woman, she is worshipped by the whole city primarily for her physical beauty.
Her husband’s friendship with the powerful Medici family puts Simonetta in the way of Sandro Botticelli, a painter who values her mind as much as her beauty. He immortalises her in a portrait but it’s not enough for either of them. Many years later, Simonetta returns to allow him to paint her – in the nude and in secret – for one of his greatest works, The Birth of Venus. Simonetta’s decision to pose for Botticelli will have disastrous consequences.
What I thought of it
Full confession: I was already a huge fan of Alyssa Palombo’s beautifully lyrical writing and ability to capture music in words after reading her first novel, The Violinist of Venice.
She has turned her poetic pen to distilling art into words in The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence and does not disappoint. The rich artistic landscape of Renaissance Florence comes alive through the eyes of Simonetta.
Under the rule of Lorenzo de Medici, Florence became a mecca of art and poetry. The Medicis had a very specific influence on the creation of art through their patronage. Personally commissioning dozens of paintings, frescoes and sculptures, they also encouraged other wealthy families to do the same.
Palombo tells Simonetta’s story while simultaneously giving the reader a vibrant tour through the political and social landscape of Florence. Religious and classical artwork both contained images of powerful political figures to display wealth and garner respect. Art was rarely created simply for beauty, though this was often professed publicly to be a primary motivator – that plus divine worship.
I loved the way literature was insisted upon as part of the definition of art. Simonetta’s personal passion is for poetry, not for paintings. In a time when books were expensive and rare, she describes her joy upon gaining access to Leonardo de Medici’s vast library:
Walking behind them, I took a moment just to enjoy the feel of the book in my hands. It was bound in coarse leather, and the paper was thin; it was not as fine as some of the volumes I had glimpsed on the shelves. Yet it mattered not at all. To hold a book, any book, in one’s hands, to smell the leather and the paper and feel the smooth pages beneath ones’ fingers, to anticipate the pleasures contained within, was a gift and a blessing.
Throughout the book Palombo runs a subtle commentary on the politics of beauty. Simonetta is a reluctant belle of the Florentine ball, preferring to engage in intelligent discussion than stand back and be admired. When told by her maidservant of the widespread adoration of the Florentines, Simonetta responds:
I snorted. “Indeed. Have you ever noticed, Chiara, that whenever a man loves a beautiful woman, it is considered some great fairy tale of love? No one ever pays attention to how the woman feels. If she is worthy of being loved by a great or handsome man, why then, what could she do but return his love? How is anything else possible?”
This frustration of the objectification of women certainly still resonates in the 21st century. And so Palombo continues an excellent tradition of using historical fiction to highlight contemporary issues.
Read it at whatever level you wish – sweeping love story, historical travel novel or political tract – but do read The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence. It’s a beautiful experience.
Disclosure: I received a copy from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.