I always judge books by their covers. Tell me you don’t.
If it’s too bland or too gaudy, I probably won’t pick it up. Of course, if I read a good review or get a recommendation from a friend, I won’t let the cover stop me from giving it a chance. But the look, smell, and feel of the book are important to me.
So when I came across The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence: A Story of Botticelli, I was drawn to its cover. I loved its dusky grapefruit-coloured hues; the city of Florence with its unmistakeable Il Duomo di Firenze, at sunset. The textured gold title that slowed my finger as I dragged it across the cover. I was intrigued by this ‘most beautiful’ woman on the cover, only the lower half of her face showing. With her red-gold curls blending into the Florentine sky. I looked at that picture every time I closed the book, and wondered what the rest of her face looked like, but knew it was better it remained a mystery – no picture would have seemed good enough.
Alyssa Palombo (The Violinist of Venice: A Story of Vivaldi) paints a story as beautiful as Botticelli’s work, The Birth of Venus, which is the basis for the book. The storyline follows Simonetta Cattaneo, a noblewoman from Genoa. When Simonetta marries Marco Vespucci, an intimate of the Medici family, her life becomes a canvas of possibility. She meets all the important philosophers, politicians and poets of the time, and is adored by all for her beauty. But it’s her relationship with the painter Sandro Botticelli that matters most. She becomes his muse for one of the most influential paintings of the Renaissance.
Although all the characters are based on real people, and the story is set in its original context of Florence, everything in between is interpretation. That being said, I could tell that Palombo has done a lot of research on Italian culture and that particular time period because it felt like I’d been transported back in time every time I read a few chapters. (Surfacing from this fantastic world back to my 21st century office job was particularly difficult.)
One of the ways Palombo creates this other world is through the masterful crafting of her language. Eloquent sentences (like “There are no words so far to seek that they could not fly to Dante’s pen”) were woven into the story like the gold threads in Simonetta’s detailed dresses. At times the lengthy sentences and falsely flattering conversation became tiring, but it served to set the scene, and since Simonetta grew tired of it as well, it helped me to connect to her. The sprinkling of Italian throughout The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence really added to its richness. It made me want to step into the story and drink a glass of vino rosso in la palazzo, with miei amici.
I fell in love with Simonetta’s character – she’s feisty, intelligent and independent. In a society where women are essentially under the rule of their husbands, Simonetta challenges this. When her husband Marco forbids her to leave the house, she does so anyway. At another point, she refuses to sleep with Guiliano even though her own husband has agreed to it on her behalf, pointing out that, “Perhaps it is all the same to you signore, but what of my honor?” She knows that her body is her own, even though her culture tells her that it belongs to her husband. And she refuses to accept that her husband can sleep with prostitutes when she is ill, because “a man has needs”.
Although it was frustrating, and sometimes heartbreaking, to learn about some of the realities for women in 15th Century Italy, it brought out Simonetta’s character even more. For example, in response to the patronizing statements that “No man wants a wife as well learned as he is” and “a girl as beautiful as you has no need of books”, she goes ahead and reads her way through the Medici library anyway. Her struggle with her beauty being perceived as the main feature of her identity is an interesting one, and one that is still highly relevant for women today. Despite its advantages, it is not something she chose, nor is it something she wishes to be adored for. Sandro Botticelli is one of the few people who truly values and encourages her mind, soul and spirit, rather than just her physical form.
It was the romance between Sandro and Simonetta that sealed the deal for me. Passionate, and breathtakingly sensual, the intense relationship between these two kept me turning the pages. That tension of whether or not Simonetta would hold to the values she expected of her husband, or succumb to her primal desires… it had me rummaging around in my bag for this book at every possible moment.