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Alyssa Palombo

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Botticelli

An Ode to Florence: The Church of the Ognissanti

In my An Ode to Florence series I’ll be posting pictures and information about my favorite places in Florence, including those that figure into The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence.

 

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The Church of the Ognissanti – or Church of All Saints – sits facing the river Arno in Florence, right across from the riverbank. The Franciscan church was originally built in the 13th century but has since been remodeled. It was the parish church of the Vespucci family, the family into which Simonetta Cattaneo married.

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In The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, Simonetta mentions attending Mass in this church with her husband and his family; they lived not far. Also in the neighborhood was Sandro Botticelli’s workshop.

Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci and Sandro Botticelli are both buried in this church. Botticelli asked to be buried at Simonetta’s feet when he died, and his wish was granted. This was the detail that truly inspired me to write The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence.

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The above shows the area where Simonetta Vespucci is interred.

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Just a few feet away is the grave of Sandro Botticelli, pictured above. People regularly leave flowers, letters, and notes on his grave. It was a very moving experience for me to visit the burial sites of my two main characters. I asked for their blessing, and can only hope that my novel did them justice.

This concludes my An Ode to Florence series. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading along and that you’ve learned some things you didn’t know before! I highly recommend visiting Florence in person if you are able at any point in your life.

Story and Song: Visual Art Edition, Part 5

Welcome to the fifth and final installment of my blog series that I’m calling Story and Song: Visual Art Edition. Each post will feature a modern/contemporary song from the playlist of The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, and a piece of artwork that features in the novel. I’ll describe how both fit into the story with a minimum of spoilers!

 

Epica – “Canvas of Life”

This is the song for a very important scene in chapter 24: when Simonetta goes to pose for The Birth of Venus for the first time. This song – both its sound and its lyrics – go perfectly with her initially posing for Botticelli, embracing the decision she made that she had hesitated about and agonized over before ultimately deciding to do what she wanted, no matter what anyone else might think. I listened to this song A TON while writing the book as a whole, and always while working on this scene both in drafting and in edits and revisions.

 

The Birth of Venus – Botticelli

Here it is, the painting which inspired The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence and around which the novel largely resolves. It is my favorite painting ever; I loved it long before I wrote the book and it was because it’s one of my favorites that I was so inspired to write about the woman behind it. What always astonishes me the most about this painting is how Botticelli managed to capture movement, motion, so perfectly – it’s hard to believe that the painting is standing still, as it were. The story is, of course, that Venus (or Aphrodite to the Greeks) was born fully formed out of the waves of the ocean and carried to shore in a giant shell, so that is what Botticelli is depicting here. As the Renaissance was very much inspired by the revival of Greek ideas, philosophies, and legends, we begin seeing many such themes in the artwork of the period.

As I describe in the novel’s prologue, this painting was known to have been finished around 1484 – well after Simonetta’s death. And, as I mention in the author’s note, we cannot know if Simonetta ever posed for it while she was alive, though I like to think that she did. There’s no record of the original commission of the painting, though it seems likely that it was commissioned by a minor branch of the Medici family and was for a time in the Villa di Castello, one of the Medici country houses. I changed this a bit in the novel, of course – such is the privilege of the fiction writer! Today the famous painting can be found in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence along with many other of Botticelli’s works, including what is perhaps his other most famous painting, the Primavera.

This is the last post in my Story and Song series for The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence. I hope you’ve enjoyed it! I’ll likely be doing similar posts for future books related to my writing soundtrack/playlists. Thanks for reading!

 

An Ode to Florence: Piazza Santa Croce

In my An Ode to Florence series I’ll be posting pictures and information about my favorite places in Florence, including those that figure into The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence.

Piazza Santa Croce is named after the Basilica di Santa Croce, which towers over the square at one end, as seen above. The Franciscan church is perhaps best known as the burial place of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, and Rossini, among others. Today the square is also home to shops, stalls selling souvenirs and leather goods, and restaurants and cafes.

In The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, the square is the site of a joust arranged by the Medici family in which Giuliano de’ Medici (to no one’s surprise) wins the day. At the joust, Giuliano carries a banner depicting Simonetta Vespucci as Athena, painted by Botticelli. He asked for her favor and named her the “Queen of Beauty” at the tournament. This event, which appears in chapters 30 and 31 of the novel, actually took place and is a matter of historical record. The historical record does not tell us, however, how Simonetta reacted to being so honored, so you’ll have to read the novel (if you haven’t already) to see how I imagined her reaction 🙂

When you visit the square today (or just look at these pictures) you’ll have to imagine it with banners and pennants festooning the buildings, stands erected on either side, and the lists in the middle. The joust that day was apparently quite the spectacle!

Story and Song: Visual Art Edition, Part 4

Welcome to the fourth installment of my blog series that I’m calling Story and Song: Visual Art Edition. Each post will feature a modern/contemporary song from the playlist of The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, and a piece of artwork that features in the novel. I’ll describe how both fit into the story with a minimum of spoilers!

In This Moment – “Dirty Pretty”

This song, as you’ll hear if you listen to it, is dark and heavy and gritty. The lyrics talk about a woman being objectified, and how she wants to rise above that. This song was a no-brainer on the playlist for Simonetta’s story. As those of you who have read The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence will know, at times Simonetta is flattered by the attention she gets because of her looks and enjoys it, and at other she finds it ridiculous and even threatening. I felt this was a realistic way for her to interact with her beauty and that kind of attention. This song goes with chapter 32, in which Marco tries to trade on his wife’s beauty in a way that she is not at all okay with, and she lets him know. She feels angry and ashamed and dirty, even though she herself didn’t do anything wrong, and upset at how people see her. So she stands up for herself. I always imagined her walking away from Marco at the end of her argument with some of the lyrics from this song in her head: “I won’t close my eyes/Like you want me to/I am wild and free/I am untameable/And more than you’ll ever see/More than just your dirty pretty”.

 

Adoration of the Magi – Botticelli

In the novel, Botticelli at one point mentions that he is working on this painting, a commission for the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, and in fact that is just where it was really painted for. In chapter 34, Simonetta goes to the church to see it, and recognizes some familiar figures. In what was a common practice at the time, Botticelli included his patrons in the painting: the man in the red cloak kneeling in the center is Piero de’ Medici, father of Lorenzo and Giuliano; the man in darker red at the far left edge is Giuliano de’ Medici, and the man in black to the right of Piero is Lorenzo de’ Medici. The Medici were particular fans of the Adoration of the Magi motif – the private chapel in their palazzo has a fresco of the same theme, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli – because they were the only rich men in the Bible who made it into heaven. A fitting choice for a family of fabulously wealthy and at times ruthless bankers.

And finally – as Simonetta recognizes in the novel when she goes to see the painting – the figure in yellow at the far right edge of the painting, looking back at the viewer, is a self-portrait of Sandro Botticelli himself. Artists often painted self-portraits into scenes like this, and in Renaissance art you can always tell which one is the artist because he will be looking directly out of the painting and at the viewer.

This painting hangs today in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and I saw it in person when I visited doing research for the novel. Of course, I made sure to say hi to Botticelli 🙂

An Ode to Florence: The Medici Palace

In my An Ode to Florence series I’ll be posting pictures and information about my favorite places in Florence, including those that figure into The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence.

Properly known as the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi (after the family that built it and the family that owned it later and added to it, respectively) this is the palace where Simonetta attends parties and dinners given by the Medici family throughout the novel. It is where she first meets Lorenzo, Clarice, and of course, Sandro Botticelli, and is also where her marriage takes place.

The first Renaissance building in Florence, construction on the palace began in 1444 by Cosimo de’ Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent’s grandfather) and was completed in 1460. It’s located just down the street from the Duomo on the Via Cavour, though at the time the street was called the Via Larga. The intention of the building was likely to convey power, wealth, and strength, and no doubt the facade communicates that message very well.

 

Above is the courtyard, where Donatello’s statue of David originally stood. It is one of the first things Simonetta sees in the novel upon entering, and it is her first glimpse of the beautiful artwork that the Medici family surround themselves with. Lorenzo’s office also originally stood off to the right of this courtyard.

This is the garden of the palace, just past the courtyard. This is where Donatello’s statue of Judith originally stood, which Simonetta also views in the novel. And this garden is the setting for the first dinner Simonetta attends at the palace, and where she meets the rest of the novel’s major players.

This room (which was undergoing some renovations while I was there) is from Lorenzo’s time (some of the rooms that are open to the public were added later). This is the room where I pictured the unveiling of Simonetta’s portrait taking place.

Above are some images of the (tiny) palace chapel, where Simonetta’s wedding service to Marco Vespucci takes place in the book. It’s a very small space on the second floor of the palace, but the frescoes are amazing.

I was initially a bit disappointed when I visited that many of the rooms from Lorenzo’s time weren’t open to the public (parts of the building are in use as a municipal building) but I was able to take what I saw and make it work for the novel. It’s a very cool building, and if you are ever in Florence I would encourage you not to miss it!

Story and Song: Visual Edition, Part 3

Welcome to the third installment of my blog series that I’m calling Story and Song: Visual Art Edition. Each post will feature a modern/contemporary song from the playlist of The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, and a piece of artwork that features in the novel. I’ll describe how both fit into the story with a minimum of spoilers!

 

Stream of Passion – “Closer”

This lovely song speaks of passion, art, and connection, so it was a natural choice for the playlist of The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence. For me, this song fit especially perfectly with the scenes in the book when Simonetta is posing for Botticelli’s first portrait of her – the one he paints shortly after her marriage to Marco. It’s a moody and beautiful song, so it seemed to go perfectly with those moments when Simonetta is first aware that her feelings for Sandro, as she calls him, are perhaps more than just friendly, though she doesn’t yet confront them or indeed know how to deal with them.

 

Idealized Portrait of a Lady – Sandro Botticelli

This portrait, widely believed to be of Simonetta Vespucci, was not in fact painted until after her death. However, in the novel I chose to have Botticelli paint the portrait sooner, and have it be the one that Simonetta poses for. I tried to describe it as best I could in the novel. I think it really is a beautiful painting, and I think that Simonetta would have liked it very much had she seen it. So in the novel I had her react in just that way to it, and she is proud that she could contribute to the making of such a piece of artwork.

Story and Song: Visual Art Edition, Part 2

Welcome to the second installment of my blog series that I’m calling Story and Song: Visual Art Edition. Each post will feature a modern/contemporary song from the playlist of The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, and a piece of artwork that features in the novel. I’ll describe how both fit into the story with a minimum of spoilers!

 

Serenity – “The Perfect Woman”

This song, from Serenity’s concept album Codex Atlanticus about Leonardo da Vinci, nevertheless fits in PERFECTLY with the Simonetta and Sandro’s story. It’s about an artist who is consumed with the painting that he is working on, and about the woman who is the muse helping him bring the work to life. It could have been written for The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, honestly. It exactly captures the relationship and atmosphere between Simonetta and Sandro as she poses for his masterpiece, The Birth of Venus.

 

Return of Judith to Bethulia and The Discovery of the Body of Holofernes – Sandro Botticelli

  

The two paintings above are a set painted by Botticelli around the time The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence begins and were at one point in the possession of the Medici family. In the novel, I have Lorenzo de’ Medici displaying them with the Donatello statue of Judith that I mentioned in my previous Story and Song post. They are the first example of Botticelli’s work that Simonetta encounters, and she is fascinated by them, before she meets the artist himself. Judith, for those unfamiliar with the story, was a Jewish widow who sneaked into the tent of enemy general Holofernes the night before he was to attack her town and seduced him. Then, while he slept, she cut off his head (and took it with her), thus saving her people. It’s a powerful story about a woman who takes power into her own hands, and so the equally powerful and striking depictions of her that Simonetta sees are both awe-inspiring and simply inspiring to her.

These two (small) panels are both in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence today.

 

The Inspiration Behind The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence

Perhaps the question that authors get asked the most is, “How did you come up with the idea for this book?” Inspiration comes in all kinds of ways – for instance, the idea for The Violinist of Venice came to me in a dream, out of the blue. With The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, though, the process was rather different and more gradual.

I can’t remember for certain, but I believe it was when I went to Italy the first time – when I was researching The Violinist of Venice – that I first heard of Simonetta Vespucci, as I also went to Florence on that same trip as well. All I had, initially, were scraps of information (and as I would find when researching the novel, there wasn’t much more than scraps to be had): that she was supposed to be the woman in Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus, and that she had also supposedly been the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici. I filed this away as a potential novel idea – something about her relationship with both Botticelli and Giuliano. When I got back from Italy, I found the idea had stuck with me, and so I poked around online and in the library to try to find out more about her.

One of the first things I found in my preliminary Google searching was that Botticelli had been so in love with Simonetta that he had asked to be buried at her feet when he died – AND HE ACTUALLY WAS. This COMPLETELY changed the novel idea that I thought I had. I no longer really cared about exploring whatever relationship Simonetta may have had with Giuliano (and the historical record is not certain on that score) and was instead interested in exploring the possible relationship that may have existed between her and Botticelli. Did not the fact that he was buried at her feet suggest more than a simple-artist muse relationship?

I certainly thought so, and still do think so, though we will never know the truth of their relationship for sure. What I did know was that this would make a stellar story, and was the perfect premise for a historical novel that I wanted to write. Yet with all that said, at this time I was working on my final revision for The Violinist of Venice before I was ready to start querying, and so I was in no position to start a new novel just yet. Even after Violinist was being queried and was later on submission with publishing houses I didn’t start writing my Renaissance Florence story, though I was playing around with some other ideas. For whatever reason, it just didn’t feel like the time was right. I also knew that I would want to go back to Florence to do some further research for it, so the timing would need to be right for that too, both personally and financially.

What I did do almost immediately, though, was write the last two lines of the book. I typed them out in a note on my phone, which I still have. They’re maybe my favorite lines in the book, and they have not changed through all the rounds of revisions since. I would share them here with you, but that would give away the ending 🙂 So you’ll just have to read the book when it comes out to see them!

Then Violinist sold, and not only that, but I was offered a two-book deal with St. Martin’s, which I obviously accepted. As I talked about at the time in my post on second-book syndrome, this sent me into a bit of a panic. What to write next? What could I write next that my publisher would love as much as Violinist? And hey, what about the fact that I had been (partially) paid for a book I hadn’t written yet?

At first, I had no idea what I wanted to do for my second book. None of the ideas I’d been playing around with while Violinist were on submission were really grabbing me; they just didn’t feel developed enough yet to be my next published book. So I dug out my idea about Simonetta and Sandro and thought, hmmm, maybe this is the time for this idea. I wrote some initial pages that seemed to go well and shared them with my agent, who liked what I had done. I had a phone call with my editor, where I described a basic outline of the idea, and she gave her blessing.

There was lots of struggle in writing The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, which you can read about here and here and also here. But I pushed through it, and as a result have a book that I’m perhaps even more proud of. As I mentioned above, researching the book was rather frustrating at times because we have only the barest facts about Simonetta’s life, and even a few of those are in dispute or uncertain. Yet this also gave me a lot of freedom as a fiction writer: I took those few facts and built a framework on which I could speculate and write scenes of my own invention. And I did get to go back to Florence for research, and saw a lot of the locations where the story takes place, and also the artwork that figures into it (I actually added even MORE artwork into it after visiting Florence again).

Aside from all the second-book syndrome stuff, in hindsight, what I now realize is that when I initially started drafting The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, I had a good story, but I wasn’t hearing Simonetta’s voice yet. I realized the exact moment when her voice finally broke through, when I finally began to hear it and felt like I really knew her as a character, and then it became much easier.

The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence – cover reveal!

I am so excited and thrilled to be able to reveal the cover for my second historical novel, The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, out 4/25/17 from St. Martin’s Griffin. Like with The Violinist of Venice, I was having a hard time visualizing what the cover for this book might look like, and once again the creative team at St. Martin’s absolutely went above and beyond and gave me a cover that is just perfect and is everything that I didn’t know I wanted.

Without further ado, here it is!

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There are so many things I love about this cover. The first is the pink color scheme. My notes in my notebook for this novel were all color-coded pink, so it’s very fitting that that’s the color scheme here. I also love how the woman looks just like the real Simonetta Vespucci (whom you can see if you take a look at Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus). The angle of her face/head also reminds me of another Botticelli portrait of her, one that she poses for in the novel. Finally, I love the panoramic image of Florence at the bottom – it’s a beautiful city, and this picture really captures that, as well as capturing its dominant feature, the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (aka the Duomo) with Filippo Brunelleschi’s amazing, enormous dome. This same vista can be seen by climbing up to the Piazzale Michelangelo in the hills overlooking the city, which I did when I was in Florence researching this novel. So to have that image on the cover is really wonderful.

I hope you all love this cover as much as I do! Please let me know what you think. And I just can’t wait for this book to be out in the world for you all to read it.

Below is the synopsis of the novel.

A girl as beautiful as Simonetta Cattaneo will never want for marriage proposals in 15th century Italy, but she jumps at the chance to marry Florentine Marco Vespucci. Marco is young, handsome, well-educated, and shares her longtime love of reading. 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 new home, her place in Florentine society, and the politics of beauty and desire, she and Botticelli develop a dangerously passionate artist and muse relationship, which will lead to her ultimately being immortalized in his masterpiece, The Birth of Venus.

Alyssa Palombo’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence is a story of love and tragedy, of passion and humor, and ultimately, of what happens when love finds us when we least expect it.

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