Black and white rendering of Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper". Twelve men are seated at a dinner table, talking. Jesus is in the middle of the table.
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Book Review: “Leonardo’s Swans” by Karen Essex


Leonardo’s Swans offers a fictional account of two women prominent during the Italian Renaissance: Isabella and Beatrice d’Este. Isabella (1474-1539) and Beatrice (1475-1497), though sisters, bear little resemblance to one another.

Isabella is beautiful and intelligent, the apple of her parents’ eyes, and quite sure of her place in the world. She firmly believes in her destiny, especially when it comes to marrying her childhood friend Francesco Gonzaga, now Marquess of Mantua. A lover of art and intelligent conversation, Isabella desires to surround herself with beauty. The artist Leonardo da Vinci catches her eye, and she’s determined to commission the maestro to craft her portrait.

Portrait of Isabella d'Este. Drawn in chalk, she faces east, as if looking at something off of the paper. Her hands rest at her waist, one hand holding the other.
Portrait of Isabella d’Este, Leonardo da Vinci, chalk on paper, 1499-1500 | ©Louvre Museum, MI 753/Public Domain

Conversely, plain but adventurous Beatrice cares for nothing more than riding horses, spending time outdoors, and, later on, fashion. Her betrothed, the famous Ludovico Sforza, future Duke of Milan – also known as “il Moro” – consistently postpones their wedding in favor of increasing his political power. When the couple finally weds, her marriage thrusts Beatrice into the role of duchess. Their residence centers on the glittering court of Milan.

Miniature portrait of Beatrice d'Este. She faces left and wears an ornate blue gown decorated with gold swirls. Her hair is in a long braid surrounded by pearls.
Miniature of Beatrice d’Este, Giovanni Pietro Birago, 1494 | ©British Library, Add MS 21413/Wikimedia Commons

Isabella comes to envy her sister. Sforza and Isabella share common interests and skills: art, political acumen, ambition. The elder sister, increasingly unhappy in her marriage, desires the lifestyle Beatrice has, including access to da Vinci.

As author Karen Essex writes on the book jacket:

The two sisters complete for supremacy in the illustrious courts of Europe, and Isabella vows that will not rest until she wrestles back her true fate and plays temptress to the sensuous Ludovico and muse to the great Leonardo.

Despite her machinations, Isabella’s wish for immortality seems part of a distant future as da Vinci prevaricates and as Italy’s ever-shifting geopolitics threaten both her and Beatrice’s security.


On the whole, Leonardo’s Swans allows reader to immerse themselves in the turbulent, heady, and even sordid days of the Renaissance. There’s something nostalgic and romantic about this period that still resonates with people hundreds of years later. Essex does well in leaning into this emotion to entice readers through the gilded halls of her novel. Her flowery prose draws readers into the forest but does not leave them snarled in the trees, as can happen in some historical fiction.

Mantua and Milan come brilliantly to life, as majestic and grand as the equestrian statue Leonardo hopes to sculpt for Ludovico Sforza. Essex explains the shifting political intrigue and alliances with ease, generally adhering to the established historical record. The dukes and marquesses of Renaissance Italy loved to use their country as a political chessboard, and navigating their different alliances and actions can prove daunting for even the most educated individuals. The author helps readers to understand who is who and how they fit together. The included maps and character glossaries successfully contextualize the novel even further.

Beneath the gilt and gold, however, lie some minor points of contention, especially in characters and character development.


Though effectively written and described, the characters in Leonardo’s Swans sometimes feel one-dimensional.

Take, for instance, Isabella. She clearly believes herself to be the superior sibling, especially at the novel’s beginning. Her jealousy over Beatrice’s meteoric rise and singular determination to control her destiny evolves throughout the novel. These both add to and detract from her character. Isabella represents the trope of a strong, intelligent woman overcoming her circumstances in a male-dominated world. However, this also limits her development and almost threatens to relegate the elder d’Este sister to a single-faceted character.

Essex presents Beatrice as a tomboyish, almost masculine foil to her beautiful, talented sister. This works quite well at the book’s start, but after she finally marries Ludovico, Beatrice’s entire being revolves around her husband. She delights in being a duchess who sets fashion trends and still loves riding her horses. Beyond that, unfortunately, Beatrice loses a lot of what made her initially likeable: her independence, her antics, her ferocity.

I struggled at times to understand both how these women were individually presented and their relationship with each other. Essex tends to play up Isabella’s jealousy, and this often leads her to manipulate others and situations to her advantage.

And, to some extent, her desire for Leonardo to paint her likeness comes across as desperate. She often seems to dislike Beatrice, except after the latter’s death at the young age of 21. It’s only after this point where we come to realize Isabella cared for her sister after all. It would have done a better service to both had their relationship been explored in more complex detail.

Regardless, the story of the d’Este sisters demonstrate the power women of that age could wield within the limited spheres allowed them and how they both influenced the history of the era. For readers looking to escape into the world of the Renaissance and powerful women, Leonardo’s Swans offers a lovely blend of historical fact and fiction sure to please just about anyone.

Book Summary

Cover of the book Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex. The woman Leto is caressed by a swan, who is Zeus in animal form.

Title: Leonardo’s Swans
Author: Karen Essex
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication Year: 2006
Page Count: 344pp (hardcover count)

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