In her second novel, The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence: A Story of Botticelli, Alyssa Palombo takes readers back to Renaissance-era Florence and examines Simonetta Cattaneo, dubbed “the most beautiful woman in Florence,” and her relationship with famous artist Sandro Botticelli.
Simonetta Cattaneo—later Vespucci—is a real-life historical figure that you’ve probably never heard of. I know I hadn’t before I picked up this novel, and I’m grateful to Palombo for introducing a fresh character to her readers.
It’s quite obvious that Palombo is trying hard—maybe even too hard—to mold Simonetta into a likable character. With her beauty being her most defining feature and both men and woman constantly fawning over her, this is a character that readers could easily take a disliking to, so I suppose Palombo’s actions were necessary. Palombo’s Simonetta may be the most beautiful woman, but she also has a sharp mind, a love for reading, and struggles to fit the role of a submissive wife. Because of these admirable personality traits, I did like Simonetta for the most part.
The focal point of the novel is the romantic relationship that blossoms between Simonetta and legendary artist Sandro Botticelli, even though she is married to the ambitious and connected Marco Vespucci. Though there is no denying that there is some sort of connection between artist and muse, I couldn’t help but feel that there should have been more chemistry present between these star-crossed lovers. I just could not get swept away in their love story, and I feel like that could be chalked up to the fact that their relationship was simply underdeveloped. There was a lot going on in this book, which I loved because I don’t think there was a single sluggish portion of this novel. But I think that all the other plot devices took away from what was meant to be the meat of the story.
I enjoyed being caught up in the world of the powerful de’ Medicis, the family that basically reigned over Florence like royalty. I believe that Palombo would do a wonderful job executing a work solely on this famous Italian family if she ever decided to go in that direction. Reading the passages where Simonetta interacts with the members of this family, which are indeed plentiful, were some of my favorites out of the whole book. Not only were characters such as Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici, along with Lorenzo’s wife, Clarice, beautifully developed, but their presence also contributed to the overall essence of what Florence was like in this age.
Florence is captured quite nicely throughout the novel. It’s obvious that a good amount of research went into creating the correct environment for the time period, which is something that, as a reader, I deeply appreciate. Art, literature, architecture, and religion that would match the climate of 15th century Florence is present everywhere, and it just made this book that much more engrossing.
If you possess an interest in Italy, the de’ Medici family, Botticelli, or the Renaissance, this novel is definitely worth a read. Palombo successfully brings to life the story of a figure quite hidden by history and made it a joy to read about one of the most interesting periods in history.