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Leonardo's Swans    by Karen Essex order for
Leonardo's Swans
by Karen Essex
Order:  USA  Can
Doubleday, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, CD
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In Leonardo's Swans, Karen Essex develops an absorbing story of political machinations, war, and sibling rivalry between two young princesses, in Renaissance Italy. The Prologue (set in the year 1506 in Milan) reveals that the story ends in an early death for one of them, while the other calls herself 'a figure on a chessboard of poison'. The tale is told, from alternating points of view of the sisters, and with chapters introduced by intriguing entries 'From the Notebook of Leonardo' (Leonardo da Vinci, whose patron is the regent of Milan). Leonardo is a shadowy, enigmatic presence behind the scenes, casting 'his genius in a myriad of directions' from statues and paintings to design of costumes and machines of war.

In 1489, Isabella, elder of the two young d'Este princesses, is betrothed to (and soon marries) Francesco Gonzaga, a skilled soldier who is to become Marquis of Mantua. The brilliant Isabella, who has the 'intellect of a man', has been groomed by 'exacting parents' to fill the position of a ruler's wife and a connoisseur (and collector) of the arts. Her lifetime ambition is to sit for the genius Leonardo, and be immortalized in his art. By a quirk of fate - one that Isabella broods over through the novel - her younger sister, feral, shy Beatrice, ends up in the more glorious marriage. Despite a wild and free upbringing at the court of her indulgent grandfather, the King of Naples, Beatrice is wed to Ludovico Sforza, Il Moro, powerful regent to his dissipated nephew and expected by all to eventually make himself Duke of Milan.

The book follows the rise and fall of Ludovico's fortunes, his Macchiavellian politics, his manipulation of those around him, and his relationships with both sisters. Young, naive Beatrice determines to make her marriage work, and takes her sister as a role model, boldly winning a central role in her husband's life - for a time. Isabella corresponds regularly with Ludovico in a 'sharing of minds', and connives constantly for a portrait by Leonardo. At one point, Beatrice, who has to grow up fast, tells her sister, 'For you, immortality is at the end of a paintbrush ... I will achieve immortality through the births of my sons.' Isabella grows shocked by the change in her sister from a 'wild and distracted girl' to a 'frightening political force' and wonders how much they are all 'pawns in Ludovico's elaborate game'.

Though I didn't find this novel as gripping (perhaps because of its shifting point of view) as the author's previous Kleopatra and Pharaoh, it was very enjoyable, with fascinating insights into a burgeoning, turbulent period in Italian history and art. As the story progresses we see the flourishing and eventual withering of Beatrice's free spirit, alongside a slow maturing in Isabella, who learns to value her sister and to understand better what matters in life - as both of them are molded in the crucible of the power games of the period.

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