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Leonardo's Swans

3.69  ·  Rating Details  ·  4,599 Ratings  ·  242 Reviews
Isabella 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 blonde and a precocious lover and collector of art. Worldly and ambitious, she has never envied her less attractive sister, the spirited but naive Beatrice, until, by a quirk of fate, Beatrice is betrothed to the fut ...more
Paperback, 351 pages
Published January 9th 2007 by Anchor (first published 2006)
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Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy ChevalierThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar WildeThe Da Vinci Code by Dan BrownThe Birth of Venus by Sarah DunantGirl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland
Art & Artists in Fiction
39th out of 516 books — 824 voters
Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy ChevalierThe Birth of Venus by Sarah DunantGirl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan VreelandThe Passion of Artemisia by Susan VreelandLeonardo's Swans by Karen Essex
Art History Fiction
5th out of 30 books — 22 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Oct 15, 2008 C.W. rated it it was amazing
This review first appeared in the May 2006 issue of The Historical Novels Review, Editor's Choice)

Leonardo da Vinci has become quite popular these days, as has the historical novel featuring an intrepid woman ahead of her time, with an abiding interest in Art. Doubleday is clearly capitalizing on these facts in marketing Karen Essex's novel, LEONARDO'S SWANS. The strategy will undoubtedly sell books, but it does not begin to do justice to Essex's haunting account of the sibling rivalry between
Jun 24, 2008 Tina rated it liked it
I'm on the fence about this book. Let's start with what I did like about it.
I loved the detailed descriptions of Leonardo da Vinci, his demeanor, his painting process, and his artwork. There were many quotations supposedly taken directly from his writings throughout the book and I loved that. He was my favorite character in the book.
I liked the way the relationship between the two sisters was portrayed, as intricate and complex- making it feel very real. They are frequently jealous and manipulat
Claudia Sesto
May 27, 2015 Claudia Sesto rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"Il cigno sa quando è la sua ora, sa che tutte le cose di questo mondo non sono che un dono effimero. Questo fatto ineluttabile sfugge solo agli esseri umani. Non appena il povero mortale è sicuro del suo potere e del suo successo, viene distrutto da forze più grandi di lui."
Un bellissimo libro, che ricostruisce la vita di due sorelle che hanno fatto la storia del Rinascimento, Isabella e Beatrice D'Este, la prima signora di Mantova sposata a Francesco Gonzaga, la seconda signora di Milano sposa
Jul 18, 2015 Andrea rated it liked it
I loved the history and the insight into the life of Leonardo DaVinci when he was living in Milan under Il Moro, and getting a glimpse into the Italian Renaissance was a treat. I would have given this book higher than 3 stars because I love historical novels. However, I had a problem with the POV. It changed so abruptly so many times that I wasn't sure who was expressing their thought. The passage of time also could have been better weaved throughout the story, it ended sort of suddenly, and I w ...more
Jun 17, 2008 Lisaslc44 rated it did not like it
Disappointing. Glad I found it on the Barnes bargain table. The story of the D'Este sisters is, how can you really mess up a European history novel for a Renaissance lover? Inconsistency in writing! It was rather aggravating to read Essex's transition from modern to period consistent vernacular. Honestly, do you think Beatrice D'Este would say "creepy?" Beyond the writing, the excerpts from Da Vinci's notebooks - I really wanted to understand how these added to the story, but that to ...more
Jul 19, 2009 Carol rated it did not like it
While I loved learning about these women and their influence over some of the world's greatest art, I am tired of reading books that evolve so much around sex. Call me a simpleton if you must, but there it is.
Jul 23, 2015 Natalia rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Estos últimos días me encontraba en pleno Renacimiento al leer Matar a Leonardo Da Vinci, pero en vez de salir e ingresar a un nuevo lugar, decidí quedarme en esa época llena de cambios, con este libro, Los Cisnes de Leonardo (Leonardo's Swans) de Karen Essex, un libro que tenía pendiente desde hace mucho, pero que decidí leer apenas terminé el anterior para así seguir en sincronía. La verdad es que lo que llamó mi atención fue su exquisita portada del famoso cuadro Leda y el Cisne, pintado por ...more
May 23, 2010 Allie rated it it was amazing
Read this review on my blog, here

Leonardo's Swans
by Karen Essex

Steeped in the excitement and dangers of 15th Century Renaissance Italy, Leonardo’s Swans was a fascinating book. It covered a vast array of historical events, from the rising tensions amongst the unstable Italian city-states, to the French invasion of Italy by Charles VIII, to the election of the corrupt Borgia Pope to the Vatican. The book had its occasional anachronism, but as a whole, I think fans of historical fiction who like a
Erika Robuck
Jul 21, 2011 Erika Robuck rated it it was amazing
Set in Renaissance Italy, LEONARDO’S SWANS is an epic tale of sibling rivalry, ambition, politics, art, and love. Isabella d’Este is the primary point of view character. She is incredibly talented, beautiful, and shrewd. She is pleased with her betrothed until she realizes that the betrothed of her younger sister, Beatrice, is not only a better match for her in intellect and passions, but is also the patron of the genius Leonardo da Vinci. Isabella’s obsession with art makes her consumed with de ...more
Bethany Andrews
Eh. I usually really like books in this genre, but this one wasn't the starts out really good but then it goes straight downhill and drags on and on...I was pretty disappointed all in all. I was excited to read this one, as its about DaVinci..but like I said, it wasn't what I had hoped for. If this is a genre you're interested in, let me know and I can recommend several that are much more entertaining and well written.

The story centers around two sisters and the seperate lives they lea
Jun 20, 2009 Breezy rated it did not like it
Shelves: other
Mundane, lackluster, cure for insomnia... this book was ridiculously BORING! How Essex managed to take intriguing people in a period of time that has inspired countless writers to genius and transformed it into a piece of work that worked like a sleeping pill is beyond me!

The book being entitled "Leonardo's Swans" is terribly deceptive. One would think that the novel would make this artist and true Renaissance man a leading character. One would be sadly mistaken. How can you take, arguably, the
Apr 13, 2012 Folliesgirl14 rated it it was amazing

Oh my God, where do I start?

I couldn't have read this book at a better time. I'd just finished the rough draft of a research paper on Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine, so I found it fascinating to read about the people and places that I'd spent so much time researching.

Alright, the characters:

Isabella - Such a complex character. Scheming, cunning, yet loving, she does not want to see anything bad happen to her sister Beatrice, yet she is also extremely j
Sep 17, 2013 Andi rated it it was amazing
Nagyon tetszett ez a könyv. Minden olyan jellegű regényt szeretek, amiben történelmi alakokat ismertet meg az író és nem csupán száraz adatokat halmoz, hanem megpróbálja szemléltetni a mindennapjaikat, érzelmeiket, hisz így közelebb kerülnek az olvasóhoz, és nem pusztán egy híres halott lesz, hanem egy ember, emberi vonásokkal.
Két fantasztikus nőről olvashatunk a könyvben Isabelláról és Beatricéről és körülöttük megelevenedik az 1500-as évek Itáliája, művészek, hadvezérek, ruhadivat, szokások.
Rio (Lynne)
Isabella of Este was betrothed by fate to the wrong man. She believes her sister, Beatrice's husband Ludovico Sforza , was more suitable for her. Ludovico the Duke of Milan, loved power, art and wanted to be famous, just like Isabella. Beatrice on the other hand just wanted to be loved. I enjoyed this book because it takes you through the years of Leonardo da Vinci's best work. I enjoyed the relationship between Ludovico and Leonardo. I think the author did a great job bringing us the essence of ...more
Aug 12, 2007 Teddy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2007
I actually rated it 3.5. Here's my review from

Karen Essex transports us to Renaissance Italy to get lost in the history and vivid scenery and art of the time. She treats us to a glimpse into the life of Leonardo da Vinci and the love, rivalry, and betrayal of two sisters. I'm not sure why Essex chose to tell the story in present tense as it did make it a bit confusing at times. I listened to the Audio CD version and the narration by Elizabeth Sastre was both elegant and fluid. Over al
Jun 02, 2009 Janice rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book especially because I visited Milan and was awestruck by the Last Supper painting. Though I remember the mural opposite it in the same room and our guide pointed out the fact that the Sforza family was painted in the scene I am regretful that the mural opposite caused me to miss looking at it closely. Very informative book about the Renaissance but I long for perhaps a little more fictional approach to the characters. We don't have video/audio cameras from the 1400s so why not ...more
This epic tale of the lives of two very different sisters and the various personalities that make up their lives is one of sweeping grandeur and painful intimate moments. Religion, politics, artistry, warfare, romance and domestic travails all take their place as the two sisters attempt to negotiate the tricky waters in which they swim. In an era in which women fell or rose by the behaviors of their husbands, Isabella and Beatrice d’Este prove to have both tender hearts and steely backbones.

I really dislike how the prologue of the book gives away the ending. Seriously, if you don't want the entire book to be spoiled skip right over the prologue.

Ok, now that I've gotten that of my chest I can say that overall I enjoyed the plot of this book. The author circles Beatrice and Isabella as they grow and really gives a voice to both girls. Isabella and Beatrice evoke emotion from the reader and I really like their interactions with one another and with other characters. Both girls grown
Annie Walker
Mar 25, 2014 Annie Walker rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art-texts
I have pretty mixed feelings about this book. The writing is just so-so, the plot can be really interesting at certain points, but then drags terribly in other parts- especially at the end.

It reads a bit like a cheezy romance novel in many ways. According to the Author, all women (even in their jealousy, discontentment, and anger) act selflessly, graciously, mercifully, or at least kindly and generously while all the men act purely out of selfishness, conceit, pride, and cowardliness.

I liked so
Patricia Bracewell
Set in DaVinci's Florence, this book had me consulting the internet to look at the 2 sisters -- countesses -- who were the subject of this novel. That's always a good thing -- when a reader wants to know more.

The writing was good, the imagining -- about their lives, affections, intrigues -- more than adequate. So why did I not find them emotionally appealing? Wish I knew.
May 28, 2015 Ginny rated it really liked it
This book was very interesting as the characters were real 15th century Italian royalty. Each chapter starts with some of Leonardo da Vinci's notebook entries which shows that he was not only an artist but an inventor/engineering etc. It wasn't the kind of book that I couldn't put down but once I found out that the characters were very real people, I enjoyed it more. It tells the story of two sisters who are married off at the age of 14/15 to Dukes. The one sister is jealous because her sister m ...more
Morgan Lee
Apr 04, 2014 Morgan Lee rated it liked it
I read this book a few years ago, and liked it a lot more then. I don't know why I didn't notice the things that I disliked so much this time before, but they seemed glaringly evident during this read. Don't get me wrong, historically and setting wise, this book was wonderful, and in my opinion, the male character were done fairly well. The female characters who lead the story however, were not so. I felt as though their relationships and feelings towards one another were too quickly changing an ...more
Aug 15, 2015 Annelies rated it really liked it
Italie 15de eeuw. Isabella en Beatrice zijn beiden dochters van hertog Ercole d'Este en worden uitgehuwelijkt om bondgenootschappen te sluiten met Mantua en Milaan. De intelligente Isabella trouwt met de jonge charmante Francesco Conzaga uit Mantua terwijl de guitige Beatrice de oudere Ludovico Sforza (Il moro) uit Milaan krijgt die al jaren loopt te pronken met zijn minnares. Isabella heeft dus geen reden om jaloers te zijn op haar jonge zusje. Of toch wel? Leonardo -Magistro- Da Vinci blijkt i ...more
I like to think of Leonardo's Swans as the prequel to E.L. Konigsburg's The Second Mrs. Gioconda. Pretty much written in the same vein as the 2005 young adult/children's book, Leonardo's Swans breathes new life into it's titular characters, Isabella and Beatrice de Este.

The aims of the two sisters appear quite trivial and meaningless at first, everything appears to boil down to pride and the procession of a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci's hand. It was interesting to see how a humble painter coul
Oct 18, 2011 Olga rated it liked it
Shelves: read-in-2011
Ever since they were little girls Isabella and Beatrice d'Este were betrothed to very different men. Isabella's fiance is to take her to the country, to the estate of a family knows for breeding the best horses in Italy and she was to become a marquesa. Beatrice's betrothed is a learned man, the regent to the duke of Milan, a renown patron of the arts, a politician like no other and one day Beatrice may become a duchess of greatest city-state in Italy. It's too bad that Isabella has a brilliant ...more
Apr 24, 2013 Udita rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Apr 01, 2012 Kay rated it really liked it
Another historical novel; this time Fifteenth Century Italy. Or rather the collection of city states that will eventually become Italy. Our heroines are Isabella d’Este and her sister Beatrice. One marries a Duke and one a Marquis and begin a rivalry for supremacy in the courts of Europe. Isabella is desperate to sit for the great and amazing Magistro Leonardo, but he currently is working for her sister’s husband, Ludovico Sforza. The struggle to get Leonard to stay focused on one project and se ...more
Althea Ann
Reading this recent historical fiction novel was a very strange experience – it's based on the same historical facts as another book, ‘Duchess of Milan' by Michael Ennis – which I love. So reading this book was almost like re-reading ‘Duchess'... but feeling that everything, has, somehow, changed... Although, I believe, factually accurate, Essex's book is much less flattering to her characters, I believe. Both focus on the two sisters, Beatrice and Isabella d'Este, who were prominent players in ...more
Jeansue Libkind
Apr 25, 2008 Jeansue Libkind rated it liked it
It says something that Leonardo is a mere bit-player, despite the title. In 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci paints, sculpts, and designs weapons for Lodovico Sforza as the French initiate their takeover of northern Italy. Two of the four “swans” he paints, sisters Isabella d’Este and Beatrice d’Este, will become the Marchesa of Mantua and the Duchess of Milan. In those positions, they will patronize the arts, run city-states, set fashion, bear children and control, contrive and contribute to the ...more
Aug 08, 2012 Rebecca rated it liked it
While this wasn't an entirely bad novel (I even enjoyed parts), there were a few things that kept it from being great:

1. The characters were just half-baked. They weren't fully developed enough for me to understand their motives or for me to sympathize with them. I didn't even hate the characters that I think I was supposed to hate because they didn't come off as villainous at all without other characters telling me about how bad they were. Speaking of telling me...

2. This book was basically AL
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I'm the author of KLEOPATRA, PHARAOH, LEONARDO'S SWANS, STEALING ATHENA, DRACULA IN LOVE, AND BETTIE PAGE: LIFE OF A PINUP LEGEND--All featuring iconic women. I am also an active screenwriter and an award-winning journalist. I divide my time between Los Angeles and Europe, where I soak in the atmosphere while writing historical fiction.

Please see my blog, "Women, History, Sex, & Power" at htt
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