Thursday, April 27, 2017

Guest Post with Alyssa Palombo

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Snyder Photography, LLC

ALYSSA PALOMBO is the author of The Violinist of Venice and The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence. 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. She lives in Buffalo, New York.


1. I went to Florence to research the book. When I started writing, I had been to Florence once before, but I knew I would need to go back to see some of the locations featured in the book that I hadn’t visited before, to re-familiarize myself with the city, and revisit – or see for the first time – some of the artwork that appears in the book.

2. While I was in Florence, the movie Inferno was being filmed. The movie, based on the Dan Brown book of the same name, was being filmed while I was in Florence, and everywhere we went there were equipment trucks parked all over the place. We couldn’t get into the Palazzo Vecchio the first day we were there, as it was closed for filming. I did see Tom Hanks from a distance, shooting a scene in front of the Duomo.

3. Very little is known about the novel’s protagonist, Simonetta Vespucci. Researching her was a challenge, as we only have a few facts about her life (and death). This was very frustrating at times, but it was also freeing, as I could build the story as I saw fit on the framework of those facts I did have.

4. I wrote the last two paragraphs of the book first. I’m not someone who writes out of sequence, but when I initially came up with the idea for this novel – after I’d been to Italy the first time, while I was still working on The Violinist of Venice – the last two paragraphs of the book were what came to me first, so I typed them out in a note on my iPhone (they’re still there). Those few lines are probably my favorites in the whole book, and they remained unchanged though all the rounds of revisions and edits.

5. I have a postcard of “The Birth of Venus” on my writing desk. I put it there to inspire me when I first started drafting the book, and it’s still there – it helped, obviously, in the scenes when I was describing the painting and how Simonetta was posed, but also I liked the feeling that Simonetta was looking on and giving her blessing.

6. My notes for this book were color-coded pink. I have a Moleskine notebook I carry (almost) everywhere and in which I write down notes about the book I’m working on or ideas for future projects, either lines that spring to mind or research notes. For each project I use a different color ink so as to tell my notes apart at a glance. The notes for The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence are in pink, and when I saw the pink color scheme of the cover it just felt meant to be.

7. I’m usually a pantser, but I did outline part of this book. For the last third or so of the book, I knew everything that was going to happen – some historical events mixed with some of my own invention – but I kept debating on what order I wanted everything to happen in. Finally I caved and outlined that last chunk so that I could plan it all out and keep it all straight.

8. In writing this book I drew on knowledge I never thought I’d use. There is a scene in the book where Simonetta and Botticelli discuss Plato’s Republic. I had to read this for a philosophy class in college and remember thinking that I would never need to know about or reference this book – but I was quite wrong! Also, in researching I read a fascinating tidbit about Beatrice, Dante’s great love: she never returned his love, and in reality thought he was a bit of a creeper. I wished I would be able to work it into the book but didn’t think it would fit. Then, lo and behold, something along these lines came out of Simonetta’s mouth at one point. It just goes to show: always read widely for your research, and also in life, because you never know what might be useful!

9. The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence was the most difficult book for me to write (so far). This book is the second book of my two-book contract with St. Martin’s, and I was feeling second-book syndrome big time. It started out strong, and then I hit a rather crippling wall. Nothing was flowing and I didn’t like working on it. But I kept at it, kept pushing, and finally I broke through. After that point (nearly halfway through the book) it got much easier. I realize in hindsight that (in addition to feeling the pressure of writing a book under contract and all the expectations that come along with that) initially I had an idea for a story, but I didn’t yet have Simonetta’s voice. Once I heard her voice I had that breakthrough. Of course, the book I am working on now may just usurp Most Beautiful as being the most difficult to write – it is shaping up to be a challenge for sure, albeit in different ways.

10. I actually stopped writing this book at one point and wrote another book before coming back to it. While struggling with this book, I at one point stopped in the middle of a scene and went and drafted a completely different book over a period of about two and a half months, then came back to The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence. This was a terrible thing to do while on a deadline, and I’m pretty sure my agent had no idea what I was doing with my life at that point, haha. But this other idea would not leave me alone, and once I started it, just as a distraction, the words wouldn’t stop coming. So I just went with it, and I realize now that doing so helped open the floodgate of words that eventually allowed me to finish The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence (which I actually handed in a month ahead of deadline). This other book is actually a contemporary one; I call it my love affair project and have been revising it here and there as I have time. I would love for it to see the light of day at some point, but who knows!

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.


"In the tradition of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Palombo has married fine art with romantic historical fiction in this lush and sensual interpretation of Medici Florence, artist Sandro Botticelli, and the muse that inspired them all." —Booklist

"Palombo gives life to the woman immortalized in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in a novel that perfectly merges art, history and romance. The Florence of the de Medicis, filled with the glorious colors of the Renaissance, shimmers as the backdrop of this fascinating glimpse into the creation of a masterpiece. This captivating, beautifully written novel may be more fiction than fact, but readers will be entranced and will feel they are an integral part of the unfolding story. Palombo joins the ranks of Tracey Chevalier, Rosalind Laker and those who perfectly merge history and reality." Romantic Times

“Strikingly feminist…a compelling narrative that is difficult to putdown.” Publishers Weekly

""Inspired by Botticelli’s iconic painting, The Birth of Venus, Palombo’s tale will sweep you away to the sights, sounds and romance of the Medici’s in Florence." BookTrib

"Beautifully written and poetically told, The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence will leave you in tears and rushing to get your hands on anything else written by Alyssa Palombo." —Feathered Quill

Genoa, 1469


I heard my mother’s voice drift down the hall as she drew nearer. Not too loud—a lady never shouted, after all—but the urgency in her tone was more than enough to convey the importance of this day, this moment.

I met the gaze of my maid, Chiara, in the Venetian glass mirror. She smiled encouragingly from where she stood behind me, sliding the final pins into my hair. “Nearly finished, Madonna Simonetta,” she said. “And if he wants you that badly, he will wait.”

I smiled back, but my own smile was less sure.

My mother, however, had a different idea. “Make haste,” she said as she appeared in the room. “Chiara, we want to show off that magnificent hair, not pin it up as though she is some common matron.”

“Si, Donna Cattaneo,” Chiara responded. Dutifully, she stepped back from the dressing table and my mother motioned for me to rise from my seat.

“Che bella, figlia mia!” my mother exclaimed as she took me in, dressed in my finest: a brand-new gown of cream silk, trimmed in fine Burano lace, with roses embroidered along the collar and hem. A strand of pearls encircled my neck, and the top strands of my gold hair were artfully pinned back, allowing the majority of it to spill down my back to my waist. “As always,” she said.

I smiled the same uncertain smile I had given Chiara, but my mother did not notice. “He is already quite taken with you, and when he sees you tonight, he shall be positively smitten.”

I had only met Signor Marco Vespucci once, and at Mass, no less. He was a Florentine, sent to study in Genoa by his father. He was known to my father, somehow, and approached us in the church of San Torpete that day with, it seemed, the intention of being introduced to me. He had bowed and kissed my hand and paid the same extravagant and foolish compliments to my beauty that all men did, so I had scarcely paid him any mind. He was handsome enough, but then many men were handsome.

Apparently, though, he had not forgotten our encounter as easily as I had. He had written to my father shortly thereafter, asking if he might pay court to me.

“But, Mother,” I began, thinking that this might be my only opportunity to air the doubts that had been fogging my head, but uncertain how to do so.

“But nothing, mia dolce,” my mother said. “Your father and I have discussed it, and Signor Vespucci is a wonderful match for you—why, he is an intimate of the Medici, in Florence! Do you not wish to help la famiglia nostra as best you can?”

“Of course,” I said. What else could I say?

“Of course,” she echoed. “Then let us go downstairs and meet your suitor. There is no need to fear; you need not say anything at all, if you do not wish to. Your beauty is enough and more.”

It was all I could do not to roll my eyes—another thing ladies did not do. As if I would not speak to the man who wished to marry me. And what a foolish notion, that he did not need to hear me speak—did men wish for wives who were mutes, then?

Possibly, I thought, a wry smile touching my lips as I contemplated all the times my mother would chatter on and on, not noticing the somewhat pained expression on my father’s face.

Well, if he married me, Signor Vespucci would not be getting a mute for a wife, that was certain, and I would make sure he knew that right off.

I followed my mother down the stairs, Chiara trailing discreetly behind in case I should need anything. Our palazzo was of a decent size, though perhaps not as large as some of the palazzi owned by other members of the Genoese nobility. It was situated far enough inland that one could not quite see the sea from the upper balconies, but I could always smell it: the scent of the sea pervaded the air, the breeze, the very stones, all throughout Genoa. It was the smell of home.

Once on the ground floor, we went out into the open-air courtyard; it was a lovely and mild late April evening, and so my father had seen fit to greet our guest out of doors.

“Ah, here she is,” I heard my father say as my mother and I appeared. “Simonetta, figlia, surely you remember Signor Vespucci?”

“Of course,” I said, offering my hand. “How do you do, Signor Vespucci?”

“Abundantly well, donna, now that I am in your presence once more,” he said, bowing low over my hand as he kissed it. He straightened up, a small, nervous smile playing about his thin lips. I cast my eyes quickly over his person again. Yes, he was handsome, and young; perhaps nineteen or twenty to my sixteen years. His dark hair and pointed beard were neatly trimmed, his eyes were large and kind, and his nose proportionate to the rest of his features. His clothes were sober grays and browns, but made of the finest stuff.

“Do come inside, Signor Vespucci,” my father said, “and take a glass of wine with us.”

“I would be honored, Don Cattaneo,” he said.

We adjourned into the receiving room, and my mother sent a servant for a bottle of our finest vino rosso. I sat on one of the carved wooden chairs, careful not to wrinkle my skirts.

I could feel Signor Vespucci’s eyes on me, but directed my gaze modestly to the floor, pretending not to notice. Are you going to speak to me, signore, or merely gaze at me all evening as though I were a painting? I wondered crossly.

“You are a vision, truly, Madonna Simonetta,” Signor Vespucci said at last. “I wonder that the sun dares shine and the flowers dare bloom in your presence.”

I bit forcefully on the inside of my cheek to stop myself from laughing. All men, it seemed, fancied themselves poets, but few were worthy of the name. Signor Vespucci was no exception.

“I thank you, signore,” I said after a moment, once I had mastered myself. “Your words are too kind.”

“And quite lovely,” my mother interjected, from a seat at an angle to my own. “Ah, you young men and your poetry!”

I bit down on my cheek again and was glad to return my gaze to the floor.

“All men—young and otherwise—can only dream of such a muse to inspire them,” he said, still looking at me. Despite decorum, I lifted my eyes and met his straight on, trying to read his sincerity. He surprised me by holding my gaze for a moment, as though he were appraising something other than my beauty, if only briefly. Yet then I saw his cheeks flush, and he looked away.

“So tell us how your studies go, Signor Vespucci,” my father said, once the wine had been poured.

My suitor took up this topic eagerly, telling us in great detail everything he was learning about the art of banking, and how he hoped his new skills would serve him well when he returned to Florence, the city of those famous master bankers themselves, the Medici.

I could not bring myself to be interested in his talk—numbers and ledgers and accounts were hardly my forte. Yet what intrigued me was the light in his eyes as he spoke, the life in his voice and his enthusiastic hand gestures. He sat on the edge of his seat as he went on, leaning forward toward my father, as though his excitement was such that it was all he could do to keep to his chair.

I softened a bit toward him then. Maybe he found in his numbers and ledgers the same thing I found in poetry: a love of something outside oneself that nevertheless felt like it was a part of one’s very being. And at that moment, that spark of recognition, as though I could see his soul, was far more attractive to me than his handsome face.

As the hour grew later and the conversation dwindled—perhaps through my parents’ design, I had not, in fact, had much chance to say anything—Signor Vespucci noticed the book left on the varnished wood table nearest him. “Ah, of course,” he said, noting the title. “La Divina Commedia. And who is reading Dante?” He glanced up at my father, assuming he already knew the answer to his question.

“I am,” I said.

Signor Vespucci looked startled as he turned to me. “You, Madonna Simonetta?”

I had received only a rudimentary education: reading and writing, and simple figures. Yet I had often persuaded my tutor—an old and kindly priest—to let me read the histories of such figures as Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. And from there we went, naturally, to poetry.

Yet when I’d reached the age of thirteen, my parents had sent Padre Valerio away, saying it was an unnecessary expense to continue to pay him. I had already learned as much and more as was needed to be a lady and a wife. “No man wants a wife as well learned as he is,” my father had said, with my mother nodding emphatically beside him. “And a girl as beautiful as you has no need of books.”

They would not let me continue my lessons, no matter how I begged. So I began to read on my own, my father’s volumes and those I asked him to purchase for me. The copy of Dante that had caught Signor Vespucci’s attention, however, had been a gift to me from Padre Valerio—one of several such gifts, bless him.

“Indeed. I wonder at your surprise, signore. Because so many noblewomen are uneducated, did you assume that I was among their number?”

My father frowned at me in warning, but I paid no heed.

“Why, no,” Signor Vespucci said, recovering. “It is just that it is quite the tome, and one does not always expect a young lady—”

Narrowing my eyes at him, I quoted, “‘Good Leader, I but keep concealed/From thee my heart, that I may speak the less/Nor only now has thou thereto disposed me.’”

My mother laughed nervously. “Simonetta…”

Yet Signor Vespucci ignored her, and again met my eyes. “‘So I beheld more than a thousand splendors/Drawing towards us, and in each was heard: “Lo, this is she who shall increase our love.”’”

Neither of us looked away for a long moment, longer than was appropriate. I felt a strange skip in my heart. It was nothing like the tormented passion Dante described, and yet still I felt my skin flush and my breath quicken.

This time it was I who looked away first.

“You would be in high favor among the Medici circle, Madonna Simonetta,” Signor Vespucci said after a moment of heavy silence, a faint huskiness in his tone. “You have in abundance the two things most prized there: beauty and poetry.”

“Indeed?” I asked, struggling to compose myself.

“Si. Lorenzo de’ Medici is following in the tradition of his grandfather, the great Cosimo, and is gathering about him the brightest and most gifted minds he can find: poets, scholars, artists. Nowhere in Italy—in the world, no doubt—are the arts held in such high esteem.”

I allowed myself to imagine it. Brilliant men, artists, all in attendance on the Medici, discussing their ideas and their art. Would they welcome a woman in their midst? Perhaps, for even here in Genoa we had heard of the formidable Lucrezia dei Tornabuoni, mother to the Medici brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano, an intelligent and well-read woman in her own right.

“I should like to see it,” I said, smiling at my suitor.

I did not realize it then, but in the weeks that followed I would look back on that moment as the one in which I had made my decision.

Copyright © 2017 by Alyssa Palombo

Sandro Botticelli’s masterpiece, Birth of Venus, is a very recognizable artwork in the world. Alyssa Palombo’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence brings a new insight into the artist’s life that sets up a striking believable fictional love story of his work. The story is a historical fiction set in the Renaissance. Palombo has proven that her research into this era went through a laborious effort and weaves a story that sounds natural and organic.

Although the story is about Botticelli, readers are quick to learn that it is also the story of Simonetta Vespucci. It is widely speculated that Simonetta is the main subject in Botticelli’s famous painting. While there is little known facts about her, Palombo is able to take those minimal facts and supplements them with a fictional story that is quite remarkably enthralling.

Readers will appreciate the history lesson, as Florence became the center of art and poetry during this era, the story also awards readers with details about the social and political setting in this city. Palombo’s writing etiquette is quite empowering. She tells a very strong and adoring story about a woman that is coming-of-age as she faces familial obligations, friendship, love and loss through strength and passion.

The world may never know if Simonetta was really the woman in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus or if she even modeled for his other paintings. After reading this novel, there is one thing for sure, it will be hard to forget and other claims of truth of this matter can be quickly disregarded. Palombo’s story brings a sense of realness to a fictional story. Readers will find themselves quickly plunging into Simonetta’s story and the events leading up to Botticelli immortalizing her in his famous paintings.

You can purchase The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you ALYSSA PALOMBO for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence: 
A Story of Botticelli by Alyssa Palombo.


  1. My first airplane ride was on the old Tin Lizzie which was a tri-motor airplane that island hopped to Put-In-Bay and Kelly's Island in Lake Erie.
    It was exciting and noisy but we were all strapped in and hoped for the best and the short trip was fine.