Isabella d’Este, daughter of the Duke of Ferrara, is thrilled with her father’s choice of husband for her. Francesco Gonzaga, the future Marquis of Mantua, is not a wildly handsome man but their betrothal looks to lead to a love match. Just one month later and she’d have been marrying her younger sister’s Beatrice’s betrothed – the much older Ludovico Sforza, regent of Milan. Ludovico has more power, but he’s put off Beatrice’s wedding for so long that it looks like it might never happen. When it does, however, Isabella meets Ludovico and for the first time is jealous of her younger, less attractive sister, because she and Ludovico are clearly of the same mind about many things. Moreover, Ludovico’s Milan is home to Leonardo da Vinci and Isabella wants nothing more than to be made immortal by the genius artist. But all is not well in Italy as the political machinations of her leaders come back to haunt them.
I have wanted to read this book ever since I read Stealing Athena by the same author two years ago. When I started to get bored with most historical fiction, I thought I would give Karen Essex a chance to bring back my fascination with it. At first, it wasn’t looking good. The book started off slowly and I set it aside for a full week in favor of other, more immediately compelling books. When I sat down to finally force myself to read it, though, it picked up and I enjoyed it by the end.
There’s no denying that Essex’s writing is lovely. She paints a gorgeous picture of a variety of places in Italy. I loved how the book was set right during the Renaissance, but there are still plenty of reminders of the Middle Ages, like jousts, hanging around to remind me that this was a period of transition. I could definitely imagine myself feasting and dancing in the courts along with the main characters, which I did appreciate.
The focus on art was fascinating as well. Isabella’s desire to immortalize herself takes up quite a bit of the story and art remains a central focus throughout. The characters are either painted or commissioning paintings or both – while Leonardo da Vinci slowly gets on with a variety of different kinds of art. Essex also reminds us how transient art is; some of the paintings she mentions are lost or have been destroyed in the meantime. It doesn’t all lead to immortality as Isabella would like.
The story is compelling in the end; it’s far more than a simple battle between two sisters for one man, as the cover would have you believe. It’s really about all of the women who are painted, or long to be painted, by Leonardo da Vinci, and the way that politics can destroy the overambitious. I would definitely recommend Leonardo’s Swans to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.
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