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.
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.