Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review: The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence by Alyssa Palombo

From the Back Cover:

A girl as beautiful as Simonetta Cattaneo never wants for marriage proposals in 15th Century Italy, but she jumps at the chance to marry Marco Vespucci. Marco is young, handsome and well-educated. Not to mention he is one of the powerful Medici family’s favored circle. 

Even before her marriage with Marco is set, Simonetta is swept up into Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici’s glittering circle of politicians, poets, artists, and philosophers. The men of Florence—most notably the rakish Giuliano de’ Medici—become enthralled with her beauty. That she is educated and an ardent reader of poetry makes her more desirable and fashionable still. But it is her acquaintance with a young painter, Sandro Botticelli, which strikes her heart most. Botticelli immediately invites Simonetta, newly proclaimed the most beautiful woman in Florence, to pose for him. 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 immortalization in his masterpiece, The Birth of Venus.

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

My Thoughts:

Simonetta Cattaneo is a beautiful young woman, raised in Genoa with a sheltered childhood, allowed to learn the basics of reading and writing, but not allowed to further her education beyond that, though she yearns to study the great masters of literature and art. So when a handsome young Florentine man comes calling with poetry and promises of a grand life in Florence, a city alive with new ideas and overflowing with art and literature, Simonetta gladly accepts his offer.

Simonetta marries Marco Vespucci, who is friends with the man behind the Florentine Renaissance, Lorenzo de' Medici, Il Magnifico. Simonetta instantly becomes the star of the de' Medicis' social circle, and soon all of Florence is caught up in the idea of her--emulating her fashion, fighting for a glimpse of her, and gifting her with the title of the most beautiful woman in Florence. She also catches the eye of young Sandro Botticelli and sits for him for a portrait. Moved by her beauty, both inside and out, her likeness begins to appear in more of his works. Simonetta is in heaven, free to read all she wants and to discuss the new and somewhat heretical ideas sweeping through the country with other intellectuals. But not everyone is happy with her esteemed status, and as her star eclipses her husband's, and as so many men vie for her attention, jealousy and thwarted ambition lead to problems in their marriage. Somewhat disillusioned and suffering from bouts of ill health, Simonetta seizes the chance to sit for Botticelli again, this time to be immortalized in his famous masterpiece, The Birth of Venus. Over the course of many months, the relationship between the artist and his muse becomes tangled, and a forbidden passion erupts, though fate will soon intervene with tragic consequences.

Having enjoyed Alyssa Palombo's first novel, and always up for a story that pays homage to a woman forgotten by history, I was super excited to read this book. And I did enjoy it. But there are two things that keep me from rating this book higher. The first is that the plot is incredibly slow-moving. It starts off well, but once Simonetta is married, it falls into a pattern of parties and intellectual discussions. In fact, there is essentially no conflict in the story whatsoever until about page 185 in a story that's 289 pages long. The second thing is that I have the same complaint I had with the author's first novel, The Violinist of Venice, and that is that, like Vivaldi in that book, we don't really get to know Botticelli at all. We don't learn where he was born, who his family was and if they had a good relationship, we don't learn anything about his art training and education, we don't even know how old he is during this story. So that was a little frustrating for a novel subtitled "A Story of Botticelli."

But once conflict finally does kick the plot into gear, I couldn't put it down. It's emotional tension that drives this story, and though Simonetta is the most beautiful woman in Florence, that does not mean that the things that are most important in life come easily for her. This truly is Simonetta's story, and she's an easy character to love. I cried at the end. You would think the woman who inspired one of the most famous paintings of all time would be better remembered by history, and I'm glad Alyssa Palombo gave her a voice and a stage on which to shine. And I very much appreciated the author's note, in which she elaborates on some known facts and explains some creative decisions she made. Some scholars dismiss the notion, but I found Palombo's depiction of the relationship between Boticelli and his muse to be very plausible. Despite my quibbles, I can recommend The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence as a good choice for any fiction reader with a love of art history and an interest in the Italian Renaissance.

My Rating:  3.5 Stars out of 5


  1. I've been eyeing this one for a long time! Looks like the writing makes up for the slow-moving plot. Thanks for the great review.

    1. Hope you enjoy it, Laura! I'm definitely in the minority in feeling that it was slow judging from other early reviews.


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