Synopses & Reviews
Isabella dEste, daughter of the Duke of Ferrara, born into privilege and the political and artistic turbulence of Renaissance Italy, is a stunning black-eyed blonde and a precocious lover and collector of art. 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 Isabellas 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 worlds most powerful and enlightened realms and be immortalized in oil by the genius Leonardo da Vinci.
Though Isabella weds the Marquis of Mantua, a man she has loved since childhood, Beatrices fortunes rise effortlessly through her marriage to Ludovico. The two sisters compete for supremacy in the illustrious courts of Europe, and Isabella vows that she will not rest until she wrestles back her true fate and plays temptress to the sensuous Ludovico and muse to the great Leonardo. But when Ludovicos grand plan to control Europe begins to crumble, immortality through art becomes a luxury, and the two sisters must choose between familial loyalty and survival in the treacherous political climate.
Leonardos Swans is an exceptionally vivid evocation of the artist during his years in the glittering court of Milan, re-creating the thrilling moments when he conceived The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. It portrays a genius ahead of his time who can rarely escape the demands of his noble patrons long enough to express his own artistic vision.
A haunting novel of rivalry, love, and betrayal that transports readers back to Renaissance Italy, Leonardos Swans will have you dashing to the works of the great painternot for clues to a mystery but to contemplate the secrets of the human heart.
"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." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Leonardo's Swans" is the story of the powerful Este sisters, Beatrice, Duchess of Milan, and Isabella, Marchesa of Mantua, as they compete for the affections of Italy's most influential prince, the Duke of Milan, and for the larger prize, to be immortalized in oil by his court painter and engineer, Leonardo da Vinci.
About the Author
Karen Essex was born and raised in New Orleans. She graduated from Tulane University, attended graduate school at Vanderbilt University, and received an MFA in Writing from Goddard College in Vermont. Essexs previous books include KLEOPATRA and PHARAOH, which she adapted into a screenplay for Warner Bros. Essex has adapted Anne Rices novel THE MUMMY OR RAMSES THE DAMNED into a screenplay for 20th Century Fox, and she has also written a screenplay about Kamehameha (the first king of Hawaii) for Columbia/Tristar. Most recently, she has written a screenplay for Entertainment and Paramount Pictures in which Jennifer Lopez is set to star.
Also an award-winning journalist, Essexs articles, essays and profiles have been published in publications such as Vogue, Playboy, The L.A. Weekly, and L.A. Style. After being awarded highest honors from the Los Angeles Press Club for her thought-provoking cover story about the missing 1950s pinup icon Bettie Page, Essex co-authored the biography, BETTIE PAGE: LIFE OF A PINUP LEGEND. Essex is the first and only journalist with whom the reclusive Ms. Page has ever agreed to meet and cooperate.
Essex has appeared on The Today Show and A Word on Words, hosted by John Seigenthaler, as well as other PBS and NPR programs. Shes lectured at the Chicago Museum of Art, and extensively at universities. Her books are taught in many college courses from creative writing to history to womens studies.
Essexs novels have been published in twenty languages. She lives in Los Angeles.
LEONARDO’S SWANS: A Conversation with Karen Essex
Q: Leonardo’s Swans reveals the drama behind some of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous paintings, but the story is told through the points of view of the rivaling Este sisters. Why did you choose to tell it this way?
A: Beatrice and Isabella d’Este, princesses of Ferrara, were women of enormous influence in the Renaissance courts. They ruled with–and in the stead of–their husbands, acted as diplomats and ambassadors, patronized great artists, and influenced fashion. Isabella’s patronage enabled titans of art like Titian, Mantegna, and Raphael to flourish. Yet the history books fail to mention these fascinating woman unless in a perfunctory way as wives of powerful men. I thought that their stories deserved to be brought to modern readers.
Q: Most chapters of Leonardo’s Swans begin with notebook entries attributed to Leonardo. Did you invent these sections?
A: These excerpts are from Leonardo’s notebooks and letters. Some have been paraphrased or rewritten to be more palatable to the contemporary reader, and occasionally, I invented a sentence to give context. Leonardo is such a towering figure–and a controversial one–that I wanted the portrait of him to be drawn from his own thoughts and experiences.
Q: And yet you do not portray him as a “towering figure,” but as a mere mortal who always needs money and who has real “issues” about finishing what he started.
A: Despite his genius, Leonardo shared the quandaries of all artists past or present. He had to feed and clothe himself and his dependents, and he had to maintain his integrity while pleasing his patrons. He was certainly one of the great “rock stars” of his day, but his situation was the same as a modern day rock star who has to fight with his record label over money and the creative content of his songs.
Q: Who are “Leonardo’s Swans,” and why did you choose that title?
A: The swans are Beatrice d’Este, the duke of Milan’s fifteen year old wife; her sister, Isabella d’Este, Marchesa of Mantua; Cecilia Gallerani, the duke’s seventeen year old mistress; and Lucrezia Crevelli, the duke’s later mistress. All the women appear in Leonardo’s art. Leonardo was intrigued with swans. Though the original is lost, a copy of his painting of Leda and the Swan by one of his students, is on the book’s cover. When I read a line about swans in his notebooks, the title, cover art, and theme of the book fell into place.
Q: Are all the paintings in the book based on real works of art?
A: Yes, they are the actual works of Leonardo and the other artists referenced, and the female characters are the flesh and blood subjects of these paintings. In fact, at the end of the book, I detail what happened to most of these characters, and where the specific paintings and drawings can be seen.
Q: Are the stories of how Leonardo came to paint The Last Supper and his legal entanglements over The Virgin of the Rocks actually true?
A: Yes, true down to the detail of how he postponed finishing The Last Supper for years until he found the perfect model for the face of Judas–much to the frustration of his patrons. He also clashed with the monks who commissioned The Virgin of the Rocks. The contract he made with them is in the book, along with the fact that Leonardo failed to honor each and every clause, choosing instead to make a painting that reflected his own vision.
Q: According to your book, some of his greatest work, like the statue of The Horse in Milan, has not survived.
A: I have always been interested in the indelible link between art and power. Who and what survives depends on who is in power. The destruction of Leonardo’s colossal statue of The Horse commissioned by the Duke of Milan and destroyed when he was deposed is no different than the destruction of the colossal buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Art, politics, and money are inextricably linked, and I wanted to explore that tension and that theme.