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Interview With Fay Picardi Author of Simonetta
By Anthony Parente
Outside of Italy not many people would have heard of or even know who Simonetta Vespucci is. Simonetta was the cousin in law to Amerigo Vespucci, but that is not what she is remembered for. If you visit Italy, you are more than likely going to see her portrait or likeness throughout the country. Simonetta Vespucci (née Cattaneo) was born in 1453 during the Italian Renaissance period and lived a very short life dying at the age of 22 in 1476. Nicknamed la bella Simonetta, her beauty captured the attention of artists and nobleman throughout Italy. Botticelli, who was infatuated with her, immortalized Simonetta in his famous painting The Birth of Venus. Her image is one that people have recognized for more than 500 years yet very little is known about this woman.
Author Fay Picardi has written a book titled Simonetta, which unveils who this woman was. Fay was kind to honor my request for an interview as I was intrigued as to what made her want to devote years of research and commitment to writing about this fascinating Italian woman.
Can you give a little background about yourself? Are you Italian? What part of Italy is your family from?
I am Italian only by marriage and by love of the country, the culture, the art and the language. My husband, however, is of 100% Italian descent. All four of his grandparents were born in Compagna in the province of Avellino. His father was born in America, but grew up in Italy. I am from a long line of primarily English immigrants going back to the early 1700s. A very American story. Both sides of my family settled in Appalachia and I spent most of my childhood in Kentucky.
What drew you to writing a book on Simonetta Vespucci?
In 2003, my husband and I spent a month in Florence studying Italian. Reproductions of Botticelli's Birth of Venus were displayed on every street corner and in every shop. Venus' naked body "graced" thousands of souvenirs from coffee mugs to leather-bound manuscript books. The more I saw of this enigmatic woman, the more my curiosity about her as well as my empathy for her grew. I learned of a book by Rachele Farina, Una donna alla corte dei Medici, which accurately documents her life with carefully researched material. I bought the tiny volume and using my limited Italian, began to read her fascinating story. After years of research, I decided I would dedicate a part of my life to writing the first carefully reconstructed English narrative of her story.
Did you encounter any obstacles while doing research on Simonetta?
My experience in researching this book was delightful. I found the Italians I encountered along the way very pleased to be helping me research Simonetta's story. I was privileged to be able to research in both the National Library at Florence and the Library of the Uffizi. I must say that I felt very privileged having my own pass for direct entry past the hordes waiting for entry to the Gallery and the guards checking ID. The research library at the Uffizi is a marvel of polished wood and marble and old leather tomes. It is the quintessential medieval library, replete with two story ladders, long wooden tables, and lamps.
My greatest challenge was translating 15th century Italian documents into English. They were usually half Latin and half "New Italian." Since I love language, the time spent translating this material was more of a game for me than a frustration. In another few years, I might be able to get them translated by Google Translate.
What is the one thing about Simonetta that you learned while doing your research that surprised you?
What surprised me most about Simonetta Vespucci is that there is no personal trace of her, this woman who was loved, praised and adored by many of the most influential men of 15th century Italy. There is not one document from her and not even one known object left that belonged to her. Her remains have disappeared. I find this shocking, since today almost everyone knows her physical image because of the portraits painted by Botticelli. Her personality is less known but at least hinted at in the profuse writings about her by many from the period.
Simonetta lived a very short life dying at the age of 22. She obviously left her mark on a number of people most notably Botticelli whose famous painting The Birth of Venus is of her. To this day her likeness can be found throughout Italy. Why do you think she has stood the test of time and is still revered today?
Although her image remains, but there is little known of the young woman that was the real Simonetta. Interest in her personal story is growing. Through research and knowledge of the period, I have tried to present Simonetta as the exceptional person she probably was. Her beauty, however, will probably never be forgotten.
There are countless accounts of the period that confirm Botticelli's adoration of Simonetta. It is probable they knew each other, as he was her neighbor and there exists a sketch of her that he did shortly before her death. He asked to be buried at her feet and was. He is reported to have said that after her death, he never painted another beautiful face other than hers. Without Botticelli's exquisite paintings, there would exist only the profuse documents written in praise of her by Lorenzo de' Medici and numerous other influential men of the period, documents seldom read in the twenty-first century except by scholars.
You spent time in Italy doing research for this book. Did the locals tell you any stories or legends about La Bella Simonetta?
Much like us, the average local knows little of Simonetta. She is just beginning to emerge from her shell, so to speak. There are currently some blogs and websites devoted to her. Unfortunately, many bring in other propensities which I do not believe were a part of her world, such as Vampirism.
Simonetta was renowned for being the greatest beauty of her time. Who do you think could rival or possibly match her beauty in today's era?
Our current and some of our past actresses exhibit the qualities she imbued. Several come to mind. Gwyneth Paltrow, etc. She was a beauty not only physically, according to Lorenzo de' Medici, but was admired for her excellent qualities of person, such as gentleness, generosity, grace. Our once definition of a "lady."
Are you currently working on any other projects?
Two volumes of poetry are in the works, Putting Love Away and Autre Monde. The first is about loss and the second is about really unusual happenings. I have considered telling Simonetta's story in her voice in a long narrative poem. I haven't decided yet.
Fay, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. Simonetta's beauty has left an indelible mark on Italy and I think people will enjoy learning more about this fascinating woman.
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