THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN FLORENCE: A Story of Botticelli by Alyssa Palombo / Released April 2017 by St. Martin’s Griffin
In the Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, Alyssa Palombo introduces us to the Renaissance beauty Simonetta, the woman Botticelli portrayed over and over again in his paintings. Of course, Palombo’s Simonetta is a very twenty-first century woman: she chortles, rolls her eyes, snorts, chats with her very best friend, takes baths and washes her hair on a whim. And, although ideas of sexual equality were generally unavailable at the time — few Renaissance women objected to the patriarchal culture — she, like any modern self-created woman, reacts with contemporary indignation when her honor is challenged.
Palombo has, nonetheless, created two delightful romantic characters (she has had to flesh out Simonetta from a few footnotes only): her Simonetta has a lively mind and excellent repartee; and the sensual, sensitive Botticelli is pretty well the only male in the book who doesn’t indulge in roguish behavior. Of course, reality might have been very different: Botticelli never married, wasn’t thought to be particularly fond of women, and he did become a follower of the radical and destructive Friar Savonarola; and portraits of the real Simonetta show a woman so bland, it’s hard to imagine her with a sparking personality.
Yes, Palombo’s Simonetta can be irritating — there’s barely a page where she doesn’t remind us of her beauty, or repeat the compliments she receives about her intelligence, and she does tend to name drop, to mention classical works she has read without telling us how they apply to life — yet this is a well written, clever, romantic historical fiction. It is also a book that might inspire readers to read further, to take an interest in a period of history that created much wondrous art, music, and was a new era of science and philosophy. And that’s one of the best things any good book can do.
Review provided by J. Arlene Culiner