It’s no accident that Alyssa Palombo’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence was my pick for the Five Directions Press Books We Loved post in April (check the link for other great books we found). Due out next Tuesday, the novel came to me for a New Books in Historical Fiction interview, but alas, I had no free space in my schedule this time around. I definitely want to interview Alyssa in the future, but for now, she has graciously agreed to this written exchange of questions and answers. Read right down the end for more information on her, this book, and how to find out more about both.
Your first book was on Vivaldi; this one looks at Botticelli. What draws you to early modern Italian artists?I’m certainly drawn to write about Italy specifically, as it’s a country I love and I find its history, political and artistic alike, so fascinating. As a musician I was inspired to write about Vivaldi at a time when I was experiencing something of a musical Renaissance myself and minoring in music in college. I often say, though, that Vivaldi chose me, as the spark for The Violinist of Venice came from a dream that I had, out of the blue, that became the first chapter of the book. With Botticelli—long one of my favorite painters—I was really struck by the true story of his artistic relationship with Simonetta Vespucci, and the fact that he is buried at her feet. It seemed such a romantic story in all the best ways that I knew I had to tell it. More broadly, as an artist myself, I am always passionately interested in the artistic process, whatever the medium might be.
When did you first hear about Simonetta Cattaneo? What made you decide to tell your story from her point of view?
I first came across her story – that she was the woman in Botticelli’s masterpiece The Birth of Venus—when I visited Florence for the first time, about four years ago now. At the time I was finishing up The Violinist of Venice and getting that ready to send to literary agents, so I filed the story idea about Simonetta and Botticelli away for future reference. When I sold Violinist and got a two-book deal, I thought that maybe it was time to dig out that idea and run with it. I don’t remember consciously making the decision to write from Simonetta’s point of view; it seemed an obvious choice for the idea as I had conceived it, but also as a writer I tend to naturally gravitate toward first person.
Tell us about Simonetta as a character—that is, your Simonetta and how she relates to the historical person. Do we know much about the historical Simonetta?
There is not much information available about the real-life Simonetta, which was at times very frustrating but also freeing from a creative standpoint. I could shape her life in a manner that made sense to me, based on the few facts that we do know, one of which being that she was actually considered the most beautiful woman in Florence in her day. That—and the fact that she was Botticelli’s model for Venus, the goddess of love and beauty—is sort of the core of what we know about her, so as a writer I wanted to explore what such a celebration of physical beauty would be like for a flesh-and-blood woman. My Simonetta is well read and intelligent and wants to be appreciated for that. She doesn’t have any false modesty about her beauty, but she interacts with it in a way that I think is realistic: at times she uses her beauty and its effect on men to her advantage, and at others she is frustrated by that effect. No one is perfect or entirely consistent in their attitudes or feelings from day to day, so that she would do both felt genuine to me.
The man she marries, Marco Vespucci, turns out to be something of a disappointment. What kind of person is he?He is someone else we don’t know too much about historically (though he was a cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer who gave his name to the new world). In my novel, he starts out as someone Simonetta believes that she loves, as she understands love. But he is ambitious and more worldly than she, and wants to use their marriage to his political and social advantage—certainly not unheard of or even necessarily frowned upon in that time and place, but also not what Simonetta thought she was getting. Their relationship changes a great deal over the course of the novel, but I won’t say too much more to avoid spoilers!
And of course, there is Botticelli himself. He and his painting are essential to the story, but in a sense he remains on the outskirts, because we meet him only through Simonetta’s eyes. How do you perceive his role and his character?In the novel, Botticelli is someone who—like the rest of those around her—recognizes and is aware of Simonetta’s beauty, but he sees beyond that as well, in a way that only perhaps one or two other characters do. He doesn’t want her to simply model for him but to truly understand and appreciate his artistic vision. He becomes first a friend to her in a way that none of the other characters are—her friendship with Lorenzo and Clarice de’ Medici, for instance, is rather different—and eventually that friendship develops into something more. I just loved writing the conversations and debates that Sandro and Simonetta have—in seeing him through her eyes it felt just like talking to a friend.
And I can’t let you go without asking about the Medici family, in all its glitter and glory. Do you have a favorite among them? Were they part of the appeal of this tale?I do! They’re all fascinating, but I really love Lucrezia Tornabuoni de’ Medici, the mother of Lorenzo and Giuliano. She was a writer in her own right and wrote plays and poetry; she was also very active in the political life of Florence and would see petitioners and settle disputes. She even went on a diplomatic mission to Rome to arrange Lorenzo’s marriage to Clarice Orsini. It was very unusual at the time for a woman to undertake such a task, which to me is just another reason why she is a very cool historical lady. They are such an interesting family overall, and they don’t appear in historical fiction nearly as often as I think they should, so that was definitely part of the appeal of writing this novel for me.
What are you working on now?My current work-in-progress is also set in Renaissance Italy, but it is very different from The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence in that it is rather dark and political. It is challenging me as a writer for sure and will be a lot of work to get just right, but in spite of and also because of that I am very excited about it!
Thank you, Alyssa, for talking with me today. I wish you all success with your writing and hope you will come back for a podcast interview next time around!
About the Book
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.
About the Author
ALYSSA PALOMBO is also the author of The Violinist of Venice. She has published short fiction pieces in Black Lantern Magazine and The Great Lakes Review. She is a recent graduate of Canisius College with degrees in English and creative writing, respectively. A passionate music lover, she is a classically trained musician as well as a big fan of heavy metal. The Violinist of Venice is her first novel. She lives in Buffalo, New York.
Connect with Alyssa Palombo