Sunday, February 14, 2010

Alphabet in Historical Fiction: Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex

At the end of last year I was chatting with Allie from Hist-fic Chick and we agreed to set each other a book to read. This book was the book that she chose for me. In many ways I was quite lucky because Allie chose a book for me that was set in an era that I already know I enjoy! It is also a perfect choice for the letter E in Historical Tapestry's Alphabet in Historical Fiction

Here's what Allie has to say about why she chose this book for me.

Back in September during Book Blogger Appreciation Week, I was interviewed by Marie of The Burton Review. During the interview, I was asked all sorts of questions about my preferences in historical fiction, one of which asked "What are some of the periods/eras that you have yet to read about but are very interested in?" Part of my response indicated that, while I am fascinated by The Wars of the Roses, I have yet to actually read any historical fiction that takes place during that action-packed period. So Marg issued a friendly "challenge" to me: to read the epic 944 page volume The Sunne in Splendour: A Novel of Richard III by Sharon Kay Penman. In return, I was to choose a book for her to read. But this proved to be a daunting task, as Marg has been blogging about historical fiction and books in general for much longer than I have, and has thus already read many of the recommendations I came up with! My go-to recommendation is usually the Josephine Bonaparte trilogy by Sandra Gulland, and sure enough, she'd read it! So I thought back further through history a little bit and recalled another one of my favorite subjects, Leonardo da Vinci.

Readers who aren't as familiar with Renaissance Italy are usually surprised to learn that Leonardo was the quintessential Renaissance man; not only an incredibly talented painter, but also a philosopher, engineer, scientist, inventor, and mathematician, patronized by the greatest rulers of his day not just for his artwork, but for his genius war machines that were centuries ahead of their time. Back in the 15th century, he was even mapping out sketches of "flying machines" (helicopters) and submarines! Needless to say, Leonardo da Vinci has always been a fascination of mine. And I knew that Marg had enjoyed Robin Maxwell's Signora da Vinci, which told a fictionalized account of da Vinci's mother Caterina. So I had to recommend that she read Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex, a book that takes place later on in his life and tells of Leonardo's time at the court of the Duke of Milan, delving a bit further into Leonardo's obsessive nature as an artist and thinker who sought perfection and beauty in everything he applied himself to. I really learned a lot about history and about da Vinci's character by reading this book, and it encouraged me to research and find out more about him. I hope reading this book has inspired Marg in a similar way!

You can read Allie's review of this book here. Thanks Allie for challenging me to read this book.

Worldly and ambitious, Isabella d'Este is a legendary beauty and when she weds the Marquis of Mantua all her dreams seem to come true. Superior in looks and intellect to her sister, Beatrice, Isabella believes she is destined to rule the courts of Italy. But when Isabella meets her sister's betrothed - Ludovico, the Duke of Milan - she finds herself unaccountably drawn to this charismatic, dangerous man. The two sisters fight for Ludovico's affections and to be immortalised by his court painter, Leonardo da Vinci. But in a treacherous political climate, immortality through art becomes a luxury, and the two sisters must choose between loyalty and survival.

Over the last few years, I have read a few novels that are set in the Renaissance and feature some of the more interesting names from history - Leonardo da Vinci, the Borgias, the de Medicis, the priest Savaronola to name a few. It is interesting to read each novel which are usually featuring different main characters and have them comment on the same events.

In this book, the main characters are Isabella d'Este, her sister Beatrice and her husband Ludovico Sforza (known as Il Moro), as well as many appearances by Leonardo. Isabella is the oldest daughter of the Duke of Ferraro, one of the key families of Renaissance Italy. She is widely acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful and intelligent young women of the day. Her younger sister Beatrice is a spirited and impulsive tomboy, nowhere near as charming or attractive, especially in Isabella's eyes. Both girls are engaged to be married. Isabella is thrilled to be engaged to Francesco Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, whilst Beatrice is not quite so eager to be married to the much older Ludovico Sforza (known as Il Moro), destined (kind of) to be Duke of Milan. Isabella has fallen in love with her husband and she is determined to propel Mantua to the forefront of the political and cultural landscape. It is only when she actually meets Ludovico that she realises that her sister has made the better match in terms of power and influence, even though Beatrice is unhappy, unable to draw her reluctant husband away from his mistresses.

Whilst Isabella covets her sister's husband, and there is a definite mutual attraction that is acted upon, Isabella desires one thing above all else, one thing that her sister's husband has the power to give her - she wants her portrait painted by Leonardo da Vinci.The two sister's vie for the attention of Ludovico, and Isabella constantly tries to influence the Duke to allow Leonardo to paint her. Beatrice however is reluctant to agree as she knows that this is an honour that her husband has bestowed on his mistresses and she doesn't want her husbands feelings for her sister to be so openly acknowledged for all the world to see.

Over time though, Beatrice comes into her own, forcing her husband to treat her as his duchess and not just as a young girl for whom he only needs as mother of his heirs, but at the same time Isabella becomes increasingly disenchanted with her own lot in life. With the French King threatening to invade, Italy's political landscape also undergoes rapid changes with friends becoming enemies, loyal soldiers betraying their lords, and betrayal between allies, not to mention a terrible tragedy for the two sisters.

It is hard for me to imagine having such enmity between sisters. When we were younger, it is fair to say that my sister and I didn't really get along, but the older we got, the closer we become. Then again, given how little I like to have my photo taken, it's hard to imagine being so desperate to have my portrait painted! To be fair, it did seem as though the relationship between Isabella and Beatrice did evolve over time, and after some very rocky periods.

The portrayal of Leonardo daVinci was one of the more interesting parts of this book. He seemed to be a distracted genius - constantly juggling various commissions, and spending months studying just one aspect of an object so that when he did come to paint or sculpt, he would have a perfect understanding. I think it is easy for us to not realise that da Vinci was involved in so many different projects. He was responsible for the entertainment at major events hosted by his sponsors, painted and sculpted, and had many ideas about military defenses, and still had time for his own private studies. He did sketch Isabella (see image above), but never did paint her portrait.

Given the rivalry between the two sisters, it seems only fair to allow Beatrice some images as well.  Click here to see images of Beatrice's tomb.

I did find some of the use of tense and memories to be a bit off, and at times a bit distracting, and there were times, particularly in the second half of the book where the book floundered a little bit in terms of pace. The strange thing is that that is when the historical action heated up! Despite this statement, I would definitely say to other Renaissance fans to give this one a go.

I also counted this book towards my participation in the Art History Reading Challenge, the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the Tournament of Reading (although it did only just fit into the time period given!). Have to love these multi challenge books!

Rating: 4/5


  1. A most interesting review. I hadn't heard of this book but I'll be on the lookout now as it sounds something I'd like.

  2. Interesting--I've often avoided historical novels that touch on real people because I fear they'll be cliche--but this sounds lovely, nuanced, and intriguing. Plus, the title--it's pulling me in on its own!

  3. I just bought a copy of this from the used book shop near my house. I am so glad to hear that it was a good read because I picked it up not knowing almost anything about it other than the title. Great review, I will have to move this one higher up in the stack!

  4. Great pick for "E" Marg. So great in fact that I cam very close to picking it myself. LOL!

  5. Teddy, maybe we should coordinate for future letters! What are you doing for F? Actually, the one I am doing is an Aussie YA author so we should be right for F.

    Zibilee, I am glad that I read it. I do love reading about the Renaissance with settings in Italy, so this is a good addition to that genre for me.

    Rowenna, the title is quite oblique in terms of the content of the book. I love books that feature historical figures.

    Cat, have you read other books set in this time period?

  6. I'm not to worried about it happening. If I see someone post their letter before me and it's the book I have chosen, I will try to choose a different on.

    I was thinking of doing The Book of Fires for F, if I finish it in time.

  7. I keep seeing this at the bookstore, and I'm always intrigued. I recently read a fun YA adventure-type book involving Leonardo da Vinci, and I really liked that it focused on his interest in mechanics and machines as well as his painting.