Desert Isle Keeper
The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence: A Story of Botticelli
The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence is the story of Simonetta Cattaneo, a young woman who moves to Florence in order to marry the rich and potentially powerful Marco Vespucci, but ends up finding love in the arms of another man. It’s a richly drawn historical novel, filled with art, intrigue, love, and sadness, and I admit staying up way too late at night just to see how things would turn out.
Simonetta is only fifteen when Marco proposes to her. He’s educated, wealthy, and handsome, but, even more intriguing to Simonetta is his friendship with the extremely powerful de’ Medici family. Even though she hardly knows Marco, she agrees to become his wife. She and her parents move to Florence before the marriage so Simonetta can begin to acclimate herself to Florentine society, and, almost as soon as they arrive, Simonetta is sure she’s found the place she truly belongs.
The people of Florence are almost immediately enchanted by Simonetta’s intellect and beauty. Her education is quite unconventional for the times, and she’s not the kind of woman to hide her intelligence from anyone. She loves reading and discussing poetry, and this makes her quite popular among the de’ Medici’s circle of artists, poets, philosophers, and politicians. It is at a social gathering at the home of Lorenzo de’ Medici that Simonetta catches the eye of up-and-coming painter Sandro Botticelli. He is immediately drawn to her, and sets about convincing her to pose for him. Once Marco agrees that a portrait of his beautiful wife would be the perfect thing to commemorate their marriage, Simonetta and Sandro begin spending hours in one another’s company.
At first, Marco and Simonetta seem to be quite happy together, but it soon becomes obvious that Marco feels threatened by her popularity. He seems to want her to look pretty on his arm without really attracting attention of her own, but that simply isn’t possible, and so cracks begin to appear in their marriage. Marco is jealous of the time Simonetta spends with Botticelli, even though nothing untoward has happened between them. He doesn’t go so far as to forbid her to continue posing for the portrait, but he makes his dislike of it abundantly clear. Simonetta, who is trying to figure out her place as a wife, isn’t sure what to do. She doesn’t want to displease her husband, but Sandro Botticelli is someone she’s come to think of a friend, and she doesn’t want to give him up. Of course, it is clear to the reader that Simonetta is attracted to the painter, but she doesn’t realize it until quite a bit later in the story.
Life is further complicated by Simonetta’s ill health. She is frequently ill with debilitating coughs and fevers, and also seems incapable of bearing children, a fact that makes her feel like a failure as a wife. But her social popularity continues to grow, and she becomes known as the most beautiful woman in all of Florence.
This novel might prove troubling to those readers who don’t like reading about adultery. Nothing happens between Simonetta and Botticelli right away, but they do eventually give into their mutual attraction, despite Simonetta being married to Marco. I wasn’t put off too much by this development since Marco is no saint, and it’s painfully obvious he and Simonetta aren’t nearly as well-suited as both of them had hoped they would be. I ended up really pulling for Simonetta to seize her own happiness, even at the cost of her marriage.
If you’re looking for a sweet romance with an HEA, you won’t find it here. The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence is historical fiction with a strong romantic arc, but it’s important for readers to know that things don’t end well for Simonetta and the artist she inspired. I won’t tell you exactly what happens, but be prepared to cry.
Despite the lack of a happy ending, I found myself totally riveted by this novel. Ms. Palombo is to be applauded for her ability to transport readers back in time to fifteenth-century Florence, and I was able to lose myself completely in the world she so skillfully brings to life. Her characters practically leap off the page, and I found myself fully invested in their joys and struggles. I definitely plan to seek out the author’s previous novel, and I can’t wait to see what she’ll write next.