Some sisters just can't leave each other alone. Isabella and
Beatrice d'Este, daughters of the Duke of Ferrara, are certainly
among their number. They've competed against each other all their
lives --- for husbands, status, power, and, above all, to have
their portrait painted by Italy's greatest painter, Leonardo da
Vinci. Da Vinci is at the mercy of his powerful patrons, yet he has
a way of squirming out of assignments and a reputation for leaving
work unfinished. How can either woman coerce da Vinci into painting
her portrait while ensuring that her sister is unsuccessful?
It seems as if Isabella d'Este has all the advantages. She's both
the pretty one and the smart one, and her marriage quickly blooms
from a political arrangement into a true love match. On the other
hand, Beatrice, whose only real skills are her horsemanship and her
ability to annoy her sister, is betrothed to Ludovico Sforza, also
known as Il Moro. As Beatrice's husband is twice her age and openly
devoted to his mistress, Cecilia Gallerani, no one has any reason
to think Beatrice is destined for any particular happiness. Worse
yet, Il Moro takes an immediate liking to Isabella, impressed by
her beauty, her intelligence, and their shared interests in art and
However, Beatrice has a formidable will. She wins her husband's
love, gets him to renounce his mistress, and proves a worthy match
for Il Moro as he fulfills his ambitions, accruing incredible
wealth and power and collecting enemies at the same rate.
Politics was a rough game in Renaissance Italy. Karen Essex must do
a little explaining in order to convey the volatile nature of the
Italian city-states where pretty much any duchy could go to war
with any other at the drop of a hat, and the one sure thing
everyone knew was that those Borgias were up to no good.
Fortune's wheel was a popular concept during the d'Este sisters'
time and the reader sees how it spins, triumph and tragedy
constantly chasing each other through tumultuous times. LEONARDO'S
SWANS is a fascinating glimpse into that time, with the added bonus
of insights into relationships between sisters and between artists
and their patrons.
And who won? Which sister bent Leonardo da Vinci to her will?
Neither, really. He got as far as a sketch of Isabella, and
Beatrice was a background figure in one of his less permanent
frescos. Cecilia Gallerani, Il Moro's beloved mistress, got the
complete oil painting.
Reviewed by Colleen Quinn on January 11, 2011