Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence

A Story of Botticelli

Alyssa Palombo

St. Martin's Griffin



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