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.
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.
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.
“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