Leonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex is a fascinating historical novel set at the end of the 15th century in Italy. Isabella and Beatrice d’Este were the daughters of the Duke of Ferrarra, and were raised to be women of influence, married to men of power. At this time, Italy was not yet a united country, but a collection of city states ruled by dukes and princes. It was a time of great beauty in the arts and architecture, and each ruler tried to outdo the others in commissioning art and buildings and theatrical productions that would establish his kingdom as the richest and most cultured.
Isabella was married to Francesco Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua, and a military man. Beatrice was married to Ludovico Sforza, also known as Il Moro, the regent of Milan. Both women ruled intelligently at their husbands’ sides, but ultimately, the schemes and manipulations of men proved beyond their control. As Italy was over-run by France, fate lede the two sisters down very different roads – one ending in tragedy, the other ending in self-preservation and a place in history.
Leonardo da Vinci, the Magistro, was known by both women; he sketched one and painted the other. His is a very real presence in the book, although not as a major character. Portions of his writings were sprinkled throughout the book at the beginnings of chapters and sections. I’m not sure if these were direct quotes from his writings, or merely suggestions from the imagination of Ms. Essex.
Essex must do huge amounts of research, because her writing and descriptions in this book place you right there in Italy at the height of the Renaissance. I loved being carried away as I read, seeing in my mind’s eye the beauty of Milan and Mantua.
The plot did drag a bit in the middle, which I didn’t notice in Essex’s other book, Stealing Athena, but it wasn’t enough to make me want to quit reading. I was intrigued by these two very different but equally strong and passionate women, and wanted to know how their stories ended. After finishing the book, I went to Wikipedia online and was able to see the paintings and sketches of these characters, which drove home the point that these were real people who lived, loved, and died, and left their mark on history. If you click on their names in the first couple of paragraphs, you will be taken to the Wikipedia articles about them, where you can see some of the beautiful art these women inspired.
4 out of 5 stars
(I read this book for the Art History Challenge.)