Isabelle d’Este, daughter of the Duke of Ferrara, born into privilege and the political and artistic turbulence of Renaissance Italy, is a stunning black-eyed blond and an art lover and collector. 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 Isabella’s 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 world’s most powerful and enlightened realms and be immortalized in oil by the genius Leonardo da Vinci. Isabella vows that she will not rest until she wins her true fate, and the two sisters compete for supremacy in the illustrious courts of Europe.
A haunting novel of rivalry, love, and betrayal that transports you back to Renaissance Italy, Leonardo’s Swans will have you dashing to the works of the great master—not for clues to a mystery but to contemplate the secrets of the human heart.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.49(w) x 9.21(h) x 0.85(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
karen essex is an award-winning journalist, a screenwriter, and the author of two acclaimed biographical novels, Kleopatra and Pharaoh.
Read an Excerpt
X * FORTUNA (CHANCE)
FROM THE NOTEBOOK OF LEONARDO:
When Fortune comes, seize her firmly at the forelock, for I tell you, she is bald at the back.
IN THE YEAR 1489; IN THE CITY OF FERRARA
She grew up in a land of fairy tales and miracles. That is what Isabella is explaining to Francesco as they ride through Ferrara's streets. It is Christmastime, and though there is no snow on the dry stone road, the horses shoot clouds of steam into the frigid air through their nostrils.
This is the first time she has been allowed to escort her fiancé through the city on one of his visits. Francesco Gonzaga, future Marquis of Mantua, has come to Ferrara to romance his soon-to-be bride and to enjoy the city's many Christmas pageants ordered by Isabella's father, Duke Ercole d'Este, a great patron of the theater. Isabella believes that the more she tells Francesco of Ferrara's secrets and wonders, and the more she shows him of her father's spectacular building projects and improvements, the more he will realize her value.
In this very church, Isabella says, pointing to St. Mary's of the Ford, almost two hundred years ago on Easter Sunday, the priest broke the Eucharist in two, and flesh and blood came spraying forth, covering the walls of the church and splattering the entire flock.
"The parishioners watched in awe," Isabella says, eyes wide with drama. "The Bishop of Ferrara and the Archbishop of Ravenna came to see it. They instantly recognized it as the body and blood of Christ and declared it a true miracle of the Eucharist."
Francesco solemnly makes the sign of the cross as they ride past the church, but his eyebrows arch skeptically, making him look entirely out of step with the act.
Beatrice trots ahead of the pair of lovers, her long braid swinging in saucy rhythm with the horse's mane, as uninterested as her steed in their conversation.
"Isn't that right, Beatrice?" Isabella asks her sister for confirmation of her story, hoping that the odd girl does not say anything to contradict her. Beatrice is a puzzle to Isabella, a fact that the older sister blames on the girl's unsupervised upbringing in wild Naples. The girl is a feral, unformed thing, alternately shy, naive, aloof, and boldthe latter especially apparent when riding or hunting. How such a small fourteen-year-old girl, who is not particularly courageous outside of these activities, excels at all manly sport is a mystery to Isabella, but the fact of Beatrice's prowess remains, no matter how enigmatic.
"I wouldn't know. I wasn't there!" Beatrice finally answers without turning around, but they can hear her laugh at her own joke.
The animal's swaying ass taunts Isabella, who knows that her sister is dying to break away from them to test the horse's speed. Francesco has brought Drago, the pure white Spanish charger, from his family's stud farm on the island of Tejeto, as a gift for the girls' father. But Beatrice immediately took over the animal, talking to him in whispers that should be reserved for a lover, and hopping upon him and riding away, as if the painstakingly bred horse was meant to carry a little girl in a pink riding dress and not a fearsome knight in armor.
"I'll tell you a miracle that happened right here in Ferrara that is even better," Francesco says, sidling his horse right up to Isabella's so that their legs touch. She knows she should pull away, that her mother would rail against this sort of indiscriminate physical contact, even with leather riding boots providing a barrier to the couple's much-craved intimacy, but instead, she rides with slow care so that they might continue to brush against one another.
"What miracle is that?" she asks, suppressing a smile.
"That your father agreed that you should be my wife," he answers.
You have no idea just how miraculous, she thinks. If the timing had been slightly different, he would be marrying the jaunty girl riding ahead of them, but this, he does not know. When the marriage agreements were made nine years ago, Isabella was only six and Beatrice five. Who could have cared at that time which sister married what man, as long as both marriages were politically expedient for the city-state of Ferrara? Isabella wants to tell him the story but she would need him to say that if things had worked out differently, his life would have been a ruin. And he cannot possibly say that in front of Beatrice.
Duchess Leonora had long ago drummed into her daughters' heads that marriage between noble houses was no whimsical arrangement based on ephemeral qualities of preference or attraction. The peace of Italy depended on these unions, especially at this juncture. The Venetians had become doubly aggressive since the Turks pushed them out of Constantinople. They began to push farther and farther inland into Italy because they needed land for their farms and their citizens. They hired condottieri to take over townsVerona, Padua, and Vincenza, all near Ferrara. The Venetians wanted complete control over the trade routes and the rivers, as well as the land. Ferrara was venerable and strong, but small. For her to remain independent, she must have strong alliances with the city-states of Mantua and Milan.
"You girls are ambassadors of Ferrara. Its welfare depends upon the success of your marriages. Therefore, you must do nothing, nothing, to endanger these alliances. You must do nothing prior to the marriages that may cause the families to renege on the commitments. Your behavior must be impeccable. You are as much the protectors of Ferrara's welfare as our army or our treasury. You are, in fact, its greatest treasures. And when you enter your husbands' houses, I expect you to act like it. Your bodies are the very bindings that will hold us all together and stave off conflicts and wars. Do not think that you can behave like the women in fairy tales and poetry. The duke and I will not tolerate it."
Looking at Francesco now, Isabella thinks that she must be the most fortunate of women. Her fiance is not handsome, but has a rugged quality that gives an ugly man appeal. Already three and twenty, he will never be tall, and his eyes bulge, a condition that she knows will worsen over time, because she has seen old men with this affliction, and they look like reptiles. Yet he is as solidly built as any man alive, and his courtly manners contrast so thrillingly with the wicked look in his protruding brown eyes. Besides being from one of the oldest noble families in Italy, he already is considered a brilliant student of warfare, destined for an illustrious career in the military arts. Undoubtedly he will lead one of Italy's great armies to many victories. Isabella feels that Francesco is the perfect man to help her realize her destinywhich is to have a powerful husband and reign with him over a great and enlightened realm.
Beatrice, riding three lengths in front of them, begins to pick up speed. She turns her head to the side, giving the lovers a sprightly profile, before dashing off with the horse.
"We had better follow her," Francesco says, a look of grave concern coming over his face.
"That will not be easy," Isabella replies.
Isabella does not like to see any interest in her sister from her betrothed, though she cannot imagine why. With her exceptional qualities, she should not worry one bit. But worry she does. Francesco is from a family famous for breeding horses. Nothing arouses the passions of the Gonzagas of Mantua like a great horse, or a rider who can handle one. Beatrice looks back one more time before guiding Drago through one of the city's grand arched portals to a road where she can ride faster. Francesco takes up the challenge and speeds after her on his dark stallion, the jewels in his silver saddle catching just enough of the winter sun to sparkle.
Isabella follows, but at a slower pace. It would be extremely unladylike for her to compete with her boyish sister in this game for Francesco's attention. Besides, she does not want to sweat so badly under her new habit that she will be embarrassed later, when, helping her descend from the steed, Francesco will take her small hand and slyly raise it to his lips. Let Beatrice dismount in her typical disheveled statedamp, stringy hairs hanging about her face, and oozing sweat like the horses she rides into the ground. Isabella settles into a steady canter as the two race ahead of her, first Francesco taking the lead, then Beatrice gaining on him, so close that it looks from this distance as if she is trying to make her horse bite his stallion's rear end.
If one is to look upon the two sisters objectively, as Isabella prays Francesco does, one has to observe Isabella's advantages. Isabella has spent all her life at her distinguished mother's knee, while Beatrice, from the ages of two to ten, was left behind at the court of Naples all the way on the other side of Italy as a peace offering to their grandfather, King Ferrante, whom everyone feared and hated, but who had taken an instant liking to Beatrice. Isabella reads Latin impeccably and can recite Virgil's Eclogues to the satisfaction of her tutors and her father's eminent guests. Beatrice, on the other hand, has spent the four years since her return to Ferrara being pushed to catch up with her sister in their studies. She can barely spell. She can recite a poem or two in Latin, but Isabella doubts that she has any idea of what she is saying. Isabella plays musical instruments and sings like an angel. Beatrice loves music, but must be sung to. Isabella has studied rhetoric and mathematics and can take either side in an argument over at least one Platonic dialogue. Beatrice enjoys poetry, but prefers that others read it to her. Isabella is the loveliest dancer in all of Ferrara, turning her head elegantly this way and that. Not only does she have the correct timing, style, and balance necessary for the art, she also knows just where to place her smile as she turns, dips, and lowers her head, eyes lingering on their specific target, until the lids fall modestly in time with the music. Beatrice manages at dance, but is no match for her graceful sibling. Isabella has read all of the books in her father's library and all of her mother's romance novels about the chivalric days of old. She has watched carefully as her parents commissioned and acquired paintings and other works of art from the most illustrious talents of the age.
In addition to her intellectual accomplishments, Isabella has tumbling blond curls, large, wide-set black eyes, and a slender body. Beatrice shows signs of stoutness, with thick thighs and ankles, though only her sister, her servants, and her husbandshould the man to whom she is engaged actually honor their betrothalwill ever know this. She has a round face, a small, uninteresting nose, and dark hair that lacks luster, so much so that she must wear it in a long pigtail down her back. She prefers the outdoors to all pursuits. She is the kind of person Isabella would not find terribly interesting if she were not her sister.
Isabella consistently outperforms Beatrice in all pursuits but this, the equestrian. Now, and in the presence of her betrothed, Isabella fears Beatrice is trying to make her pay for her crimes of superiority.
Suddenly Francesco stops, pulling in the animal, whipping him about so that he is facing Isabella. She realizes that he is looking for her, has stopped this competition with her sister because she has entered his mind, even in the midst of the wild ride.
Beatrice, who has bolted ahead, stops too. No longer enjoying the ride without the competitive aspect, she trots back to him. Isabella hears Francesco say, "I wanted you to show me the city's newest improvements, not race me to your death."
"You just don't want to lose to a woman," Beatrice retorts, flushed scarlet from her escapade, adjusting the velvet cap that she wears at a clever tilt.
"Do you fail to remember that I was not losing?" he answers.
"Settle down," Isabella says in Beatrice's direction, hoping that she does not sound too much like the admonishing older sister, the sour one who does not want to be a part of their game. "We are supposed to be showing him the city!"
"Be a good girl, or I'm going to take Drago back home with me," Francesco says to Beatrice in a tone that conspires with Isabella's parental attitude toward her sister.
Beatrice clutches the reins close to her chest. "He wouldn't go. He would run away with me first!"
"Don't be too sure, little princess," he replies, sounding like a father.
Thank God he considers her a child and Isabella a woman! Satisfied that she can recapture Francesco's attention with her more mature demeanor, Isabella leads them over the bridge and back inside the city walls.
"Now, Beatrice, do listen to what I am telling Francesco so that when your betrothed comes to visit Ferrara, you might show him these same things."
Beatrice groans. The subject is a sore one.
Mistress once more of the little expedition, Isabella explains how the city of Ferrara has changed in recent years; how her father, the duke, had gotten it into his mind to rebuild the city along the enlightened architectural guidelines set by Leon Battista Alberti, the Genoan. She explains (to demonstrate her knowledge of not only architecture, city planning, and mathematics but political subtleties as well) how Ercole had sent to his ally, Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence, for the ten manuscripts of Alberti's De Re Aedificatoria, to set about modernizing his city and its buildings according to that great theorist's vision. Streets were widened into broad avenues. New structures were created with careful attention to classical values of proportion and harmony. Aesthetics were linked with and equal to the mathematical proportions of things.
While all this construction had flown up around her, Isabella had felt that, along with the old-fashioned city of pointed arches and endless spires, life itself was spreading out in broader directions. Narrow streets, dark halls with low ceilings, and cramped corridors were things of the past. Lamps and candles illuminated rooms once kept dark. People were reading and talking in these well-lit drawing rooms late into the night. Ancient manuscripts, once the property of the church and private collectors alone, were being translated from Greek and Latin into Italian right here at Ferrara's university, and Venetian and Milanese printers were making copies of them and selling them all over the country. In the years after her father had defeated and executed his rivals and made peace with the Venetian Republic, the old Castello d'Este with its famous four towers was quickly transformed from fortress to grand residential palazzo. The soldiers, along with their weapons and artillery, were moved to the older, colder, more stern quarters, while the family and members of the court occupied the newer and more spacious halls and apartments, decorated with the works of the greatest artists of the decades, all of whom had passed through Ferrara in the service of the Este familyPisanello, Piero della Francesca, the Venetian Jacopo Bellini, Cosimo Tura.
Reading Group Guide
1. While Leonardo’s Swans is written from the points of view of the Este sisters, each chapter begins with an excerpt from the actual notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, who is a pivotal character. How did the portrayal of Leonardo change your opinion of this iconic artist? Were you aware of the breadth of his work, which included weaponry design, anatomy, sculpture, and machinery?
2. Leonardo’s challenges as a genius with a great vision and also a human being who needs to pay his bills and feed his dependents is explored throughout the novel. Did the fact that this great man was plagued by so many ordinary woes surprise you? Is his situation different from the artist’s plight today? Did his problems change your opinion about, or shed light upon, the struggles facing any contemporary artists that you might know?
3. The novel explores the eternal relationship between art and power. What is created and what survives is a direct result of who is in power and who is controlling the purse strings. Leonardo’s most famous paintings were commissioned by his patrons. Other works were not executed because of both war and whim. How does this theme continue to play out in our own culture? Did you make the connection between, say, the destruction of the colossal Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban and Leonardo’s bronze for his colossal horse sculpture being shipped away to make cannons? Or the French soldiers destroying the clay sculpture after the fall of Milan? What works of art have been commissioned with public money in your community? Do you think they reflect the vision of the artist or the vision of those who commissioned them?
4. Isabella d’Este was obsessed with being immortalized by the great artists of her day. What would be a parallel in our own society? Is today’s quest for publicity and self-promotion the same instinct? How do today’s power players seek immortality through art and architecture?
5. Beatrice and Isabella d’Este were mere teenagers when they married and took their positions as co–rulers of great Italian city–states. If they were alive today, they would have been in high school instead of administering huge and complex governments. It is unimaginable that seventeen year–old girls would control treasuries, hear pleas from members of the community and decide resolutions, or commission works of art from great masters. How has our idea of adolescence and womanhood changed over the centuries? Do you think this is a positive or negative evolution?
6. The portrayal of the Este sisters accurately reflects their roles in their communities. Were you surprised that young women wielded such enormous power and influence during the Renaissance? Why is it that women of power are generally left out of the history books? Is all women’s history hidden history? Do you think that today’s young girls would be enriched by learning about the stories of these extraordinary women of the past?
7. The timing of Isabella’s marriage proposal from Francesco Gonzaga prevented her from marrying the man who might have been her true soul mate, Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. Could history have been changed if Ludovico had been subject to Isabella’s stronger control? Do you think that if the marriages had been reversed and Beatrice would have wed Francesco, the outcome for both sisters—indeed, the outcome for the duchy of Milan—would have been more successful?
8. Isabella d’Este’s superior survival skills enabled her to weather the constantly changing political loyalties of her contemporaries, even those in her own family. She went on to become a great collector and patron of the arts and a strong political influence in Italy and beyond. Did she emerge as your favorite character, or did you have more sympathy for Beatrice? Is survival the most important goal after all? Do you think Isabella might have paid a price for “winning?”
9. Each chapter of Leonardo’s Swans is entitled with the name of a tarot card. The tarot deck was invented at the court of Milan and painted most famously by the artist Bonifacio Bembo. The cards reflected the nature of other playing cards of the day and were used to play a Game of Triumphs, or trumps, as is referred to in the novel. Beatrice, in fact, did excel at this game. Do you see the correlation between the tarot cards and the events of the chapters? Do you agree, along with Isabella, that la Fortuna, or the Wheel of Fortune, has a hand in human events?
10. Leonardo da Vinci was recognized in his own time as an innovator and a genius. To put it in contemporary terminology, he was one of the “rock stars” of his day, owing solely to his talent. Has the power of fine art such as painting and sculpture been reduced by the advent of television, video, cinema, and other alternative art forms and media? How important is it to preserve and support the fine arts?