As an American representative for Italian Tourism, I have the amazing opportunity to travel to Italy a few times a year. On my most recent trip, I journeyed to Lombardia, an astounding Northern region bursting with beauty, culture, and history. One of the richest areas of Italy, of which Milan is the capital, the power and wealth of the Italian nobility during the Renaissance remains quite prominent, seen in my new favorite city of Mantua (Mantova in Italian). Upon returning from this mind-blowing trip, I was told to read a novel written by American author Karen Essex called Leonardo’s Swans. If only to try to extend my trip in my mind, I gladly picked it up. Once I started, I could hardly put it down.
Leonardo’s Swans follows the earlier years of the legendary painter, designer, architect, scientist, and eccentric Leonardo da Vinci through the life stories of the noble sisters Isabella and Beatrice D’Este. Beginning in their age of betrothal, to Francesco Gonzaga and Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza respectively, this blossoming work of historical fiction chronicles their lives and their constant battles for the attention of Leonardo and his genius. Although we remember Isabella most as the Marchesa of Mantua and as one of the first leading women of the Italian Renaissance, it was under the pocketbook of Ludvico and Beatrice in Milan that Leonardo prolifically created some of his most renowned works, such as The Last Supper and Virgin on the Rocks, the former of which I had the honor of viewing for my allotted 15 minutes. We get an inside look into the struggles, passions, and annoyances of the Master with many references to his personal journals and letters.
On top of the history lesson we receive from Ms. Essex, we also get a glimpse into the lifestyles of the rich and the famous of European nobility, including their tangled love stories and secret rendezvous. Though countless letters and other correspondences have documented the Este’s lives quite thoroughly, we learn about some of the most scandalous and secretive relationships that include some of the most renowned and notorious characters in Italian history. The ample descriptions the author provides also details their lavish lifestyles, from clothes to commissioned artwork to hidden vaults to whole trains of seamstresses, jewelers, security, and family. This novel transports us back into a time where whole parades of servants escorted a single family member to another scene if only to display their sovereignty and showcase their wealth. No one would want to be caught dead with anything less than a domineering posse!
The best part of this novel is the fact that you can visit these sites and physically relive the past according to historical fact and artistic whimsy. The Palazzo Ducal in Mantua, Castello Sforzesco in Milan, not to mention the countless pieces of art and sculpture that are mentioned and inspired by the people in this novel are enough to make your head spin in delight. Although the recent earthquake has damaged some of these priceless relics, Italians are working overtime, after lunch of course, to repair and reopen these amazing locations and exhibits. Order it online or pick one up at your local bookstore, but Karen Essex’s Leonardo’s Swans proves itself to be a wonderous journey that is not to be missed.