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

If Renaissance Florence is your kick, if you like to read about women otherwise relegated to the footnotes of history, and if you like your books with a hint of forbidden passion, then The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence is a historical fiction must-read for you.

From the official blurb:

“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 immortalizatiIf Renaissance Florence is your kick, then The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence is a historical fiction must-read for you.on in his masterpiece, The Birth of Venus”.

Plenty of reviewers have compared this novel to Sarah Dunant’s Birth of Venus. The reasons are quite obvious, of course – the setting in Renaissance Florence, th
e focus upon great works of art, and, above all, the vivid female perspective. There is a significant difference, though; whereas Birth of Venus deals with the dark years of Savonarola’s theocracy and the bitter struggle between the clerical power and the newborn secular art, Alyssa Palombo’s novel is set in an earlier, sunnier period.

The world was young, the mountains green, no stain yet on the moon was seen; in other words, Lorenzo the Magnificent was, well, young, the peace (seemingly) assured, and the horrors of both foreign invasion and conservative backlash still lay far in the future. It is into this world, glowing with optimism and brimming with new talents, the newly-betrothed Simonetta Cattaneo arrives.

The author excelled particularly in re-creating the confident, hopeful world of the early Renaissance. It is one of those cases, when the setting feels almost like another character.

At first, Simonetta’s incomparable beauty looks like a golden ticket, a key to every door. But, gradually, she starts to see the dark side to this seeming advantage. She realizes, that being desired by powerful men can be as dangerous as it is flattering; usually even more so.

I shook in sorrow, in fear, in rage at this world that sought to use me as it saw fit.

She is extremely vulnerable to both the desires and accusations of others, and even her status as a nobleman’s wife cannot save her. The danger as exacerbated by Simonetta’s interest in Botticelli’s new project, scandalous even for the secular and enlightened Florentines – and in the brilliant young artist himself…

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