Leonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex. Broadway, 2006.
Leonardo’s Swans is the story of two sisters, Isabella and Beatrice d’Este, who lived during the Italian Renaissance. Both daughters of the important Ferrara family are engaged to be married, and when refined older sister Isabella meets her fiance Franceso Gonzaga, the handsome Marquess of Mantua, she believes that she has made the better match. Her wild younger sister Beatrice would rather ride horses than be engaged and her future husband Ludovico Sforza, known as Il Moro, is old and more interested in his mistress than in his young bride-to-be.
But when she finally meets Il Moro, Isabella finds common ground in their shared love of the arts, and a mutual attraction develops. There is one other thing Isabella desires of her sister’s husband – to have her portrait painted by Leonardo Da Vinci – and as Da Vinci’s patron, this is within Ludovico’s power. The desire causes a rift between sisters though as Beatrice comes into her own and the birth of her son secures her husband’s legacy.
One of the interesting questions posed by Leonardo’s Swans is whether or not Il Moro murdered his nephew Gian Galeazzo. Gian Galeazzo was seven when his father was assassinated and he came into power with his mother Bona of Savoy acting as regent. Just four years later, Ludovico forced her to resign and gained complete control. When Gian Galeazzo reached maturity he continued to be no more than a figurehead and was described as sickly, frivolous, and an “incompetent nonentity”. Although there isn’t solid evidence that Ludovico did kill his nephew, contemporaries certainly believed that he had. As depicted in the novel, Gian Galeazzo fell ill and died in 1494 after the birth of Il Moro and Beatrice’s son Ercole. In his La Historia di Italia historian Francesco Guicciardini wrote:
The rumor was widespread that Giovan Galeazzo’s death had been provoked by immoderate coitus; nevertheless, it was widely believed throughout Italy that he had died not through natural illness nor as a result of incontinence, but had been poisoned… one of the royal physicians…asserted that he had seen manifest signs of it. Nor was there anyone who doubted that if it had been poison, it had been administered through his uncle’s Ludovico Sforza machinations.
After his death, the Dukedom should have gone to Giangaleazzo’s four-year-old son, with widow Isabella of Aragon serving as regent, but Ludovico seized the Dukedom himself and was declared Duke even before his nephew was buried.
Leonardo’s Swans also discusses Leonardo Da Vinci’s horse statue “Il Cavallo” and how the bronze that had been set aside to cast it instead went to make cannons used in Milan’s battle against the French. The horse was commissioned in 1482 in order to honour Il Moro’s father and took Da Vinci seventeen years of research, but when the clay model was ready to be cast, the bronze was needed for war and the clay statue was destroyed by French soldiers. A fascinating article can be found here detailing how the plans to cast a bronze horse, previously thought to be technically impossible by engineers, was feasible after all.
Isabella and Beatrice d’Este were such fascinating women that I’m actually surprised they aren’t a more common subject for historical fiction writers. When I first learned about the d’Este sisters in a Renaissance course, I was impressed that such well-educated and powerful women lived in such a male-dominated age and Karen Essex does a great job of capturing the sisters. Other reviewers have noted that Leonardo’s Swans is ‘heavy on the history’ and that’s probably what I enjoyed most about it. The novel includes a great deal of information about events that occurred and a lot of research has clearly gone into this book.
Where Essex excels is in the loving description and analysis of several works of art. It’s fortunate that we live in the Internet age because I often found myself wishing that I had an image of the paintings she discussed in front of me. Also interesting were the parallels drawn between contemporary and renaissance art and the process of the artist who is caught between commerce and imagination.
The one problem I had with this novel was the author’s use of tense. The work is written in present tense, possibly to create a feeling of action, but switches to past tense in flashbacks. While I certainly don’t mind the use of flashbacks in a work, the shifts in tense were so jarring here that they drew me out of the story, which is a pity because there is a good story here.
The other nitpick I have is Essex’s use of excerpts from Leonardo’s notebook, often at the beginning of chapters. The excerpts are interesting, but I often felt that they didn’t add anything to the story and interrupted the flow of the novel.
Verdict: Well worth a read for the interesting subject matter and loving depictions of art, but the style can be distracting and it sometimes drags in the middle.