Leonardo’s Swans: A Novel – Book Review

Leonardo's Swans coverLeonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex tells the story of the daughters of the Duke of Ferrera. Isabella, the elder daughter, desires to be powerful and adored, and most of all to achieve immortality by being painted by the Magistro, Leonardo Da Vinci. Her younger sister, Beatrice, desires most of all to love and be loved in return. Tension arises between the two when Beatrice marries Ludovico Sforza, one of the most powerful men in Italy and the patron of Leonardo Da Vinci.

These sisters lived during an extremely volatile time in Italian politics, a time of shifting allies and foreign threats. They had to deal with politics, government administration, their husbands’ affairs, threat of invasion by the French, and the frustration of working with Leonardo Da Vinci.

Karen Essex wrote this novel in hopes of setting a background for the life and works of Da Vinci through the women who appeared as subjects in his work, including Bianca and Isabella D’Este, Cecilia Gallerani, and Lucrezia Crivelli. She does this primarily through Bianca and Isabella, both of whom were strong, able women who were great assets to their husbands in the administration of their states. Essex’s goal may have worked too well, however; the novel seems to be more about Bianca and Isabella than about Leonardo, he seems to be more the incidental character, which is a bit incongruous considering the title of the novel. I did feel, however, that the novel was well written and had that thing which I most value in a historical fiction work: an historical description of the fates of the characters, in order to further the reader’s understanding of the period and the events.

Overall, this is a book I would definitely recommend. Perhaps those who have been stuck on the Tudors of England might like to move to Italy to help expand horizons; there are even some characters familiar to Tudor afficianados, French Kings Louis XII and Francois I, as well as Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian.

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