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Leonardo's Swans

Leonardo's Swans

4.3 24
by Karen Essex

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Isabelle d’Este, daughter of the Duke of Ferrara, born into privilege and the political and artistic turbulence of Renaissance Italy, is a stunning black-eyed blond and an art lover and collector. Worldly and ambitious, she has never envied her less attractive sister, the spirited but naïve Beatrice, until, by a quirk of fate, Beatrice is betrothed to


Isabelle d’Este, daughter of the Duke of Ferrara, born into privilege and the political and artistic turbulence of Renaissance Italy, is a stunning black-eyed blond and an art lover and collector. Worldly and ambitious, she has never envied her less attractive sister, the spirited but naïve Beatrice, until, by a quirk of fate, Beatrice is betrothed to the future Duke of Milan. Although he is more than twice their age, openly lives with his mistress, and is reputedly trying to eliminate the current duke by nefarious means, Ludovico Sforza is Isabella’s match in intellect and passion for all things of beauty. Only he would allow her to fulfill her destiny: to reign over one of the world’s most powerful and enlightened realms and be immortalized in oil by the genius Leonardo da Vinci. Isabella vows that she will not rest until she wins her true fate, and the two sisters compete for supremacy in the illustrious courts of Europe.

A haunting novel of rivalry, love, and betrayal that transports you back to Renaissance Italy, Leonardo’s Swans will have you dashing to the works of the great master—not for clues to a mystery but to contemplate the secrets of the human heart.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Sexual and political intrigue drive Essex's intricate novel (after previous historicals Kleopatra and Pharaoh) starring 15th-century Italian sisters Isabella and Beatrice d'Este. Isabella, the elder, more accomplished sister, is engaged to handsome Francesco Gonzaga, a minor aristocrat, while Beatrice is intended for the future duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, who's powerful, unscrupulous and already in possession of a pregnant mistress. It seems, at first, that Isabella will enjoy domesticity with Francesco, while unhappy Beatrice is useful to her husband only as a vehicle for breeding sons-a situation further complicated by Ludovico's infatuation with the more beautiful Isabella. While Isabella encourages her brother-in-law's overtures, she's actually desperate to sit for his resident artist, Leonardo da Vinci. The sisters' sexual rivalry provides the main fodder for the novel's first half; the less compelling remainder is taken up with the political complexities of Renaissance Italy, as the rulers of France scheme to invade Italy, Francesco schemes against Ludovico, and Ludovico schemes against everyone. Essex's canvas is too finely detailed to adequately represent the epic dramas of warring Italian princes, and occasional anachronisms in diction are distracting. But the stories of Isabella and Beatrice d'Este along with the occasional investigations of Leonardo's artworks, methods and personality are always engrossing. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Essex (Kleopatra; Pharoah) offers another meticulously researched fictional biography, this time moving to war-torn 15th-century Italy to document the lives of the noble d'Este sisters, who make politically advantageous marriages. Blond, beautiful, politically astute, and a patron of the arts, elder sister Isabella is betrothed to Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua. Their union, at first happy enough, later breaks down owing to Francesco's jealousy, infidelity, and wavering political loyalties. The na ve Beatrice marries Ludovico Sforza, future Duke of Milan, a mature ladies' man and serious patron of the arts for whom she would seem ill suited. Essex explores the rivalry between the sisters by focusing on their attempts to engage the services of court painter Leonardo da Vinci. Though intimidated by the master, Beatrice encourages him to complete civic works commissioned by her husband, while Isabella is intent upon securing a portrait of herself that will endure through the ages. Readers of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring or Sarah Dunant's The Birth of Venus will welcome this novel, which brings Renaissance Italy vividly to life. Highly recommended for public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/05.]-Loralyn Whitney, Edinboro Univ. of Pennsylvania Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In her third historical novel (Pharaoh, 2002, etc.), Essex shifts her focus to 15th-century Italy, where politics and art determine the private ambitions and intrigues of the Estes sisters. Intellectual Isabella marries the handsome soldier Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, in 1490, when she is 15. The following year Isabella's younger, tomboyish sister Beatrice marries the older, more controversial Ludovico, future Duke of Milan and patron of the wily Leonardo da Vinci, who creates his art according to his own schedule, despite Ludovico's best attempts to control him. Leonardo has used Ludovico's current mistress as the model for his classic The Lady with Ermine. During Beatrice's wedding festivities, Isabella sees the painting, recognizes Leonardo's genius and determines that the Maestro must paint her too. Meanwhile, Ludovico, for whom the adolescent Beatrice is little more than a baby-making machine, flirts with Isabella. Drawn to Ludovico's intellect and his ambition, Isabella carries on a torrid year-long correspondence with Ludovico, but events and Francesco's jealous suspicion keep them apart. Beatrice longs for her husband's affection. When she finally gives Ludivico an ultimatum, her sudden gumption charms him into love and fidelity. Now Isabella, stuck in the boonies of Mantua, is the one pining, not for Ludovico but for the immortality Leonardo's portrait would bestow. Unfortunately, protocol demands that Beatrice be painted first, and Beatrice does not want to be painted. For her, immortality resides "at the end of my husband's cock." With Beatrice's help, Ludovico uses Milan's fortune in military and political intrigue. Beatrice dies in 1495, age 22, after discoveringLudovico has cheated on her again. After Ludovico's ultimate defeat by the French in 1499, Isabella, safe in Mantua because Francesco has not involved himself in Ludovico's battles, invites Leonardo to visit. He sketches Isabella, but never completes the painting. Essex delineates the confusion of historical events and historically accurate personalities with clarity, but she never quite achieves a sense of human urgency.
From the Publisher
“Privileged sisters compete over men, attention—and the chance to be immortalized on canvas by Leonardo da Vinci in this instantly absorbing tale.” —Redbook magazine

“Two very different sisters, two very different husbands, and one of the greatest geniuses of all times, Leonardo da Vinci. In this sizzling historical novel set in fifteenth-century Italy, Essex combines art, political intrigue, family feuds and sex to create a page-turner that also probes the experience of being painted and whether it can offer immortality.” —USA Today

“Acclaimed author Karen Essex spins a wild yarn about sexual politics and the struggle for immortality.” —Harper’s Bazaar (“Hot Reads” pick)

“Meticulously researched. Exquisite detail . . .” —Chicago Tribune

Product Details

Doubleday Publishing
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.49(h) x 1.13(d)

Read an Excerpt

Leonardo's Swans

By Karen Essex

Random House

Karen Essex
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0739325787

Chapter One

Chapter One



When Fortune comes, seize her firmly at the forelock, for I tell you, she is bald at the back.


She grew up in a land of fairy tales and miracles. That is what Isabella is explaining to Francesco as they ride through Ferrara's streets. It is Christmastime, and though there is no snow on the dry stone road, the horses shoot clouds of steam into the frigid air through their nostrils.

This is the first time she has been allowed to escort her fiance through the city on one of his visits. Francesco Gonzaga, future Marquis of Mantua, has come to Ferrara to romance his soon-to-be bride and to enjoy the city's many Christmas pageants ordered by Isabella's father, Duke Ercole d'Este, a great patron of the theater. Isabella believes that the more she tells Francesco of Ferrara's secrets and wonders, and the more she shows him of her father's spectacular building projects and improvements, the more he will realize her value.

In this very church, Isabella says, pointing to St. Mary's of the Ford, almost two hundred years ago on Easter Sunday, the priest broke the Eucharist in two, and flesh and blood came spraying forth, covering the walls of the church and splattering the entire flock.

"The parishioners watched in awe," Isabella says, eyes wide with drama. "The Bishop of Ferrara and the Archbishop of Ravenna came to see it. They instantly recognized it as the body and blood of Christ and declared it a true miracle of the Eucharist."

Francesco solemnly makes the sign of the cross as they ride past the church, but his eyebrows arch skeptically, making him look entirely out of step with the act.

Beatrice trots ahead of the pair of lovers, her long braid swinging in saucy rhythm with the horse's mane, as uninterested as her steed in their conversation.

"Isn't that right, Beatrice?" Isabella asks her sister for confirmation of her story, hoping that the odd girl does not say anything to contradict her. Beatrice is a puzzle to Isabella, a fact that the older sister blames on the girl's unsupervised upbringing in wild Naples. The girl is a feral, unformed thing, alternately shy, naive, aloof, and bold-the latter especially apparent when riding or hunting. How such a small fourteen-year-old girl, who is not particularly courageous outside of these activities, excels at all manly sport is a mystery to Isabella, but the fact of Beatrice's prowess remains, no matter how enigmatic.

"I wouldn't know. I wasn't there!" Beatrice finally answers without turning around, but they can hear her laugh at her own joke.

The animal's swaying ass taunts Isabella, who knows that her sister is dying to break away from them to test the horse's speed. Francesco has brought Drago, the pure white Spanish charger, from his family's stud farm on the island of Tejeto, as a gift for the girls' father. But Beatrice immediately took over the animal, talking to him in whispers that should be reserved for a lover, and hopping upon him and riding away, as if the painstakingly bred horse was meant to carry a little girl in a pink riding dress and not a fearsome knight in armor.

"I'll tell you a miracle that happened right here in Ferrara that is even better," Francesco says, sidling his horse right up to Isabella's so that their legs touch. She knows she should pull away, that her mother would rail against this sort of indiscriminate physical contact, even with leather riding boots providing a barrier to the couple's much-craved intimacy, but instead, she rides with slow care so that they might continue to brush against one another.

"What miracle is that?" she asks, suppressing a smile.

"That your father agreed that you should be my wife," he answers.

You have no idea just how miraculous, she thinks. If the timing had been slightly different, he would be marrying the jaunty girl riding ahead of them, but this, he does not know. When the marriage agreements were made nine years ago, Isabella was only six and Beatrice five. Who could have cared at that time which sister married what man, as long as both marriages were politically expedient for the city-state of Ferrara? Isabella wants to tell him the story but she would need him to say that if things had worked out differently, his life would have been a ruin. And he cannot possibly say that in front of Beatrice.

Duchess Leonora had long ago drummed into her daughters' heads that marriage between noble houses was no whimsical arrangement based on ephemeral qualities of preference or attraction. The peace of Italy depended on these unions, especially at this juncture. The Venetians had become doubly aggressive since the Turks pushed them out of Constantinople. They began to push farther and farther inland into Italy because they needed land for their farms and their citizens. They hired condottieri to take over towns-Verona, Padua, and Vincenza, all near Ferrara. The Venetians wanted complete control over the trade routes and the rivers, as well as the land. Ferrara was venerable and strong, but small. For her to remain independent, she must have strong alliances with the city-states of Mantua and Milan.

"You girls are ambassadors of Ferrara. Its welfare depends upon the success of your marriages. Therefore, you must do nothing, nothing, to endanger these alliances. You must do nothing prior to the marriages that may cause the families to renege on the commitments. Your behavior must be impeccable. You are as much the protectors of Ferrara's welfare as our army or our treasury. You are, in fact, its greatest treasures. And when you enter your husbands' houses, I expect you to act like it. Your bodies are the very bindings that will hold us all together and stave off conflicts and wars. Do not think that you can behave like the women in fairy tales and poetry. The duke and I will not tolerate it."

Looking at Francesco now, Isabella thinks that she must be the most fortunate of women. Her fiance is not handsome, but has a rugged quality that gives an ugly man appeal. Already three and twenty, he will never be tall, and his eyes bulge, a condition that she knows will worsen over time, because she has seen old men with this affliction, and they look like reptiles. Yet he is as solidly built as any man alive, and his courtly manners contrast so thrillingly with the wicked look in his protruding brown eyes. Besides being from one of the oldest noble families in Italy, he already is considered a brilliant student of warfare, destined for an illustrious career in the military arts. Undoubtedly he will lead one of Italy's great armies to many victories. Isabella feels that Francesco is the perfect man to help her realize her destiny-which is to have a powerful husband and reign with him over a great and enlightened realm.

Beatrice, riding three lengths in front of them, begins to pick up speed. She turns her head to the side, giving the lovers a sprightly profile, before dashing off with the horse.

"We had better follow her," Francesco says, a look of grave concern coming over his face.

"That will not be easy," Isabella replies.

Isabella does not like to see any interest in her sister from her betrothed, though she cannot imagine why. With her exceptional qualities, she should not worry one bit. But worry she does. Francesco is from a family famous for breeding horses. Nothing arouses the passions of the Gonzagas of Mantua like a great horse, or a rider who can handle one. Beatrice looks back one more time before guiding Drago through one of the city's grand arched portals to a road where she can ride faster. Francesco takes up the challenge and speeds after her on his dark stallion, the jewels in his silver saddle catching just enough of the winter sun to sparkle.

Isabella follows, but at a slower pace. It would be extremely unladylike for her to compete with her boyish sister in this game for Francesco's attention. Besides, she does not want to sweat so badly under her new habit that she will be embarrassed later, when, helping her descend from the steed, Francesco will take her small hand and slyly raise it to his lips. Let Beatrice dismount in her typical disheveled state-damp, stringy hairs hanging about her face, and oozing sweat like the horses she rides into the ground. Isabella settles into a steady canter as the two race ahead of her, first Francesco taking the lead, then Beatrice gaining on him, so close that it looks from this distance as if she is trying to make her horse bite his stallion's rear end.

If one is to look upon the two sisters objectively, as Isabella prays Francesco does, one has to observe Isabella's advantages. Isabella has spent all her life at her distinguished mother's knee, while Beatrice, from the ages of two to ten, was left behind at the court of Naples all the way on the other side of Italy as a peace offering to their grandfather, King Ferrante, whom everyone feared and hated, but who had taken an instant liking to Beatrice. Isabella reads Latin impeccably and can recite Virgil's Eclogues to the satisfaction of her tutors and her father's eminent guests. Beatrice, on the other hand, has spent the four years since her return to Ferrara being pushed to catch up with her sister in their studies. She can barely spell. She can recite a poem or two in Latin, but Isabella doubts that she has any idea of what she is saying. Isabella plays musical instruments and sings like an angel. Beatrice loves music, but must be sung to. Isabella has studied rhetoric and mathematics and can take either side in an argument over at least one Platonic dialogue. Beatrice enjoys poetry, but prefers that others read it to her. Isabella is the loveliest dancer in all of Ferrara, turning her head elegantly this way and that. Not only does she have the correct timing, style, and balance necessary for the art, she also knows just where to place her smile as she turns, dips, and lowers her head, eyes lingering on their specific target, until the lids fall modestly in time with the music. Beatrice manages at dance, but is no match for her graceful sibling. Isabella has read all of the books in her father's library and all of her mother's romance novels about the chivalric days of old. She has watched carefully as her parents commissioned and acquired paintings and other works of art from the most illustrious talents of the age.

In addition to her intellectual accomplishments, Isabella has tumbling blond curls, large, wide-set black eyes, and a slender body. Beatrice shows signs of stoutness, with thick thighs and ankles, though only her sister, her servants, and her husband-should the man to whom she is engaged actually honor their betrothal-will ever know this. She has a round face, a small, uninteresting nose, and dark hair that lacks luster, so much so that she must wear it in a long pigtail down her back. She prefers the outdoors to all pursuits. She is the kind of person Isabella would not find terribly interesting if she were not her sister.

Isabella consistently outperforms Beatrice in all pursuits but this, the equestrian. Now, and in the presence of her betrothed, Isabella fears Beatrice is trying to make her pay for her crimes of superiority.

Suddenly Francesco stops, pulling in the animal, whipping him about so that he is facing Isabella. She realizes that he is looking for her, has stopped this competition with her sister because she has entered his mind, even in the midst of the wild ride.

Beatrice, who has bolted ahead, stops too. No longer enjoying the ride without the competitive aspect, she trots back to him. Isabella hears Francesco say, "I wanted you to show me the city's newest improvements, not race me to your death."

"You just don't want to lose to a woman," Beatrice retorts, flushed scarlet from her escapade, adjusting the velvet cap that she wears at a clever tilt.

"Do you fail to remember that I was not losing?" he answers.

"Settle down," Isabella says in Beatrice's direction, hoping that she does not sound too much like the admonishing older sister, the sour one who does not want to be a part of their game. "We are supposed to be showing him the city!"

"Be a good girl, or I'm going to take Drago back home with me," Francesco says to Beatrice in a tone that conspires with Isabella's parental attitude toward her sister.

Beatrice clutches the reins close to her chest. "He wouldn't go. He would run away with me first!"

"Don't be too sure, little princess," he replies, sounding like a father.

Thank God he considers her a child and Isabella a woman! Satisfied that she can recapture Francesco's attention with her more mature demeanor, Isabella leads them over the bridge and back inside the city walls.

"Now, Beatrice, do listen to what I am telling Francesco so that when your betrothed comes to visit Ferrara, you might show him these same things."

Beatrice groans. The subject is a sore one.

Mistress once more of the little expedition, Isabella explains how the city of Ferrara has changed in recent years; how her father, the duke, had gotten it into his mind to rebuild the city along the enlightened architectural guidelines set by Leon Battista Alberti, the Genoan. She explains (to demonstrate her knowledge of not only architecture, city planning, and mathematics but political subtleties as well) how Ercole had sent to his ally, Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence, for the ten manuscripts of Alberti's De Re Aedificatoria, to set about modernizing his city and its buildings according to that great theorist's vision. Streets were widened into broad avenues. New structures were created with careful attention to classical values of proportion and harmony. Aesthetics were linked with and equal to the mathematical proportions of things.

While all this construction had flown up around her, Isabella had felt that, along with the old-fashioned city of pointed arches and endless spires, life itself was spreading out in broader directions. Narrow streets, dark halls with low ceilings, and cramped corridors were things of the past. Lamps and candles illuminated rooms once kept dark. People were reading and talking in these well-lit drawing rooms late into the night. Ancient manuscripts, once the property of the church and private collectors alone, were being translated from Greek and Latin into Italian right here at Ferrara's university, and Venetian and Milanese printers were making copies of them and selling them all over the country. In the years after her father had defeated and executed his rivals and made peace with the Venetian Republic, the old Castello d'Este with its famous four towers was quickly transformed from fortress to grand residential palazzo.


Excerpted from Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

karen essex is an award-winning journalist, a screenwriter, and the author of two acclaimed biographical novels, Kleopatra and Pharaoh.

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Leonardo's Swans 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
dll More than 1 year ago
With the landslide of women's historical fiction triggered mostly by Phillipa Gregory (unfortunately, in my opinion), it is a relief to find an interesting and historically accurate novel. The author relies on her ablities to describe and conjecture about the women within historically accurate surroundings and events rather than full blown sex scenes to propel the reader's interest. Further, there is comparitively speaking, very little good historical fiction written about the area which later became Italy (or any other country that is not either England or Scotland) during the 15th and 16th centuries, yet many historically defining events occured within the region. I recommend it highly - for newbies it gives a taste of what well-written historical fiction can really be like, and for those of us who have been reading historical fiction for 30 years or more, it helps flesh out a time when all areas of life were being turbulently and thrillingly changed.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Beatrice and Isabella d'Este, two 16th-century noblewomen, are depicted here as sisters who love each other dearly despite their ongoing rivalry. Both of them marry well (though not always happily), and as patronesses of the arts are closely associated with Leonardo da Vinci. This fictional recreation of their lives as young women is lively and fascinating. Both are strong-minded and independent, and would probably have made better rulers than their husbands in their respective cities of Milan and Mantua. The author's historical notes about the characters are an added bonus at the end of the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Karen Essex does an incredible job of bringing these historical characters to life. I found myself engrossed in these people's lives and this moment in Italian history. I've read a number of historical fiction from this period, and Leonardo's Swans is by far my favorite! Great read. Highly recommend!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
if you like history in Renaissance Italy.1490-1550..you will love it...while these events happened Christopher Columbus was just discovering America........
AlisaLorrine More than 1 year ago
After reading this book, I wanted to go back in time and meet (at least the fictional version) of Leonardo. Beatrice and Isabella are such polar opposite characters, and their lives are full of intrigue and plot twists. Sticks pretty true to historical facts, Essex has tied in fiction seamlessly. Gorgeous writing style, character development and plot. I sure wish I had my own treasury room like Beatrice!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was very good, I still think that The Other Boleyn Girl is the best historical fiction book I have ever read, but this novel took me into the Italian times of Leonardo Da Vinci and made the author made the characters realistic through the sisterly competion, which occurs with all siblings and people. I'm not sure if I liked the ending, but I liked the book overall. It was a fantastic way to start my summer reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
LEONARDO¿S SWANS by Karen Essex is a tempestuous tale of two sisters. The sisters in question are Isabella and Beatrice D¿Este. In personality and looks they are very different but their lives are intertwined in the turbulent history of the Italian city-states during the Renaissance. A third character is braided into this very readable historical novel ¿ Leonardo (da Vinci). Here he is called the Magistro, and the portrait of him comes across as an enigmatic but truthful image of the artist/engineer. Essex has a way of allowing the reader to enter into the history through the characters. It is a well-written novel with each of the chapters bearing the title of a Tarot card. Nice touch since the Sforza-Visconti¿s had some influence on the Renaissance invention. ¿ Leslie Strang Akers
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just read Leonardo's Swans, which I thought was simply fantastic. It was brought even more to life by the lively read by the author, Karen Essex, who swung through Pasadena on a book tour. The characters are beautifully and specifically drawn and it is simply fascinating to finally learn of the other components, namely the women, in Da Vinci's life. I was both educated AND entertained. I couldn't recommend this book more highly!
GailCooke More than 1 year ago
Historical fiction at its finest aptly describes 'Leonardo's Swans,' which is rich in period detail and court intrigue. A voice performance at its finest is also an appropriate description of Elizabeth Sartre's narration. She brings alive the longings and loves of two sisters in Renaissance Italy. Ferrara is home to Isabella and Beatrice. They're close together in age but miles apart in ersonality. 'Beatrice is a puzzle to Isabella, a fact that the older sister blames on the girl's unsupervised upbringing in wild Naples.' Isabella is engaged to Francesco, while the younger Beatrice will wed Ludovico, the future Duke of Milan. These marriages had been arranged when the girls were 5 and 6 years of age. It little mattered at the time which girl would be wed to which man as long as the match was beneficial for the city-state of Ferrara. In later life the girls will be rivals as Isabella catches the eye of Ludovico, a man lacking in morals with a beautiful mistress, to say nothing of being her brother-in-law. He may have met his match in the ambitious Isabella who would use him so that his court painter, Leonardo da Vinci, might capture her image in oils. These maneuverinsg are set against the plotting of France's rulers to invade Italy. Essex depicts the Renaissance with all its ribaldry and rivalry - wonderful listening! - Gail Cooke
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Timeless sister/BFF love. Beatrice's story retold. Several websites hace good stories inventsd