“A haunting novel of rivalry, love, and betrayal.”
So Leonardo’s Swans is described on the back cover. Though it is strongly implied that the rivalry and betrayal will be sisterly, do not be fooled. The novel has been (much like the 2006 movie the Breakup) cheated out of proper marketing. When one expects a passionate feuding between two powerful sisters and instead receives an intricate and well researched novel about the lives of wives, political leaders and artists in Renaissance Milan, one cannot help but feel a little bit disappointed.
The first half of the novel is about the tepid¹feud between real-life sisters Isabella d’Este and Beatrice d’Este. The first is to wed the young and romantic Francesco Ganzoga, marquis of Mantua. The second is to wed the middle aged Leonardo Sforza, duke of Bari. Though Isabella at first considers herself more fortunate (Sforza continually humiliates her sister by delaying the wedding and appearing in public with his mistress) she soon changes her mind when she is thrown into the enchanting world of Ludovico. She comes to envy her sister who lives in the alluring city of Milan and whose husband is Leonardo Da Vinci’s patron. Isabella, marchesa of Mantua vows she will not rest until she is painted by the Master. Beatrice vows to foil her plans.
The second half of the novel is more concerned with the political history of the Great Wars of Italy (especially that of 1494–98). In spite of the fact that most reviewers view this as the duller half of the book, I was delighted by the details and facts woven into the narrative. Here is where the publicized “rivalry” and “betrayal” comes into play. The rivalries will be political, the betrayals of deep historical consequence. This is where I truly appreciated the sisters’ voices and thoughts; jealousy and manipulation are not nearly as interesting to me as seeing history through the eyes of it’s protagonists.
Recommended to lovers of historical fiction and or of Leonardo da Vinci. Seeing him as a contemporary, a fellow citizen, a man susceptible and dependent of money and patrons (though in the end listening only to his integrity) is impressive. You will be left with a different and no doubt more realistic view of Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, the most perfect Renaissance Man.
“The soul he means to evoke is his own.”
¹ To be fair, my assessment probably stems from a modern judgement rather than a historical one.