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Leonardo's Swans

3.72  ·  Rating details ·  5,992 ratings  ·  298 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 Books (first published 2006)
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Average rating 3.72  · 
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 ·  5,992 ratings  ·  298 reviews

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Aug 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Wow! This isn't your usual Historical Romance novel. Like all others I assumed that this would be another intense, serious, Historical Romance with the main lovers budding heads then falling in love towards the end. Although this plot is focused on every character, the slight judgment of others with their actions, and hilarious side comments. Karen Essex grabs hold of the reader with incredible vocabulary there is no words repeated. The chapters are an hour long each on Audible but there is so m ...more
May 28, 2008 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
Oct 15, 2008 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
May 30, 2009 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. ...more
Daniel Villines
Mar 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
One of the more popular periods during the Italian Renaissance is the reign of Ludovico Sforza over the duchy of Milan. During Ludovico’s lifetime he saw his father, Francesco Sforza, transform Milan into a regional power, lived through his older brother’s assassination, and served as regent to his dead brother’s underage son.

For the twenty-five years following his brother’s assassination, while regent over his nephew, Ludovico succeeded in consolidating power over Milan and in doing so, he bro
It's hard to get into a novel when you find the two main characters flat and uninteresting. Not even the character of da Vinci himself made the novel any more enticing. ...more
May 11, 2013 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
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 06, 2008 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
Aug 14, 2009 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 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
Jun 01, 2009 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
Feb 26, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Easy to read. Gave me an insight into these various northern Italian city states, Milan, Mantua, Venice, Ferrara. Also a very human portrayal of Leonardo, with all the foibles in amongst the genius. Loved Isabella's interpretations of his various paintings. But the characterisations were often distant - we got to share a character's interior world and then we only knew of subsequent actions in third person and relayed details. So there was a mix of closeness and distance. I felt it was hard to r ...more
Aug 29, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2018
It may be because I read this as my real book while reading several Kindle books, but it wasn't until the last half that it grabbed me. I've read a bit about this period of time so it was fun to fill in gaps with characters who have been involved in the other stories I've read. What I ended up appreciating most was how Essex portrayed the women both competing with but also taking care of eachother. I thought she balanced the power & helplessness better than many historical writers do. She stayed ...more
Joslin Harmon
Aug 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
A good read but drags a bit toward the end. The characters are very alive though, you can see and hear them.
Jul 09, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: bookclub
The descriptions of the art and design were beautiful, but unfortunately I found the storyline lacking. Makes me want to go to the Louvre again to see these works of art.
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
Jun 27, 2016 rated it liked it
It's just that for so long, I imagined that you had stolen my Destiny, when all the while, unbeknownst to us, you were preserving it for me.

Beatrice and Isabella d'Este are destine for greatness. The daughters of the Duke of Ferrara both girls know their future is to marry well and promote the ambitions and honor of their families and great names. Isabella becomes the Duchess of Mantua, while her sister will become the Duchess of Milan. So begins the rivalry as Isabella realizes how everything s
Jun 13, 2009 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
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 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
Diane Chamberlain
Apr 06, 2009 rated it liked it
I'm not usually a reader of historical fiction, so the fact that I liked this book three stars worth says something. I liked the feisty sisters and the peek into the era. I skimmed over most of the lengthy descriptions of art and riches. Just not my thing. I thought it was well-done for the genre and was thoroughly engrossed until about the final quarter, when I thought we were mostly getting a recitation of historical events instead of the story of the characters. ...more
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.
Dec 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I found this book when discovering a box I had stored away. What a gem of a find! Wonderfully written and historically accurate, the book tells the story of the D’Este sisters, Isabella and Beatrice, and how their lives intersected with Leonardo DiVinci. What was personally delightful in the read were the stories of the creations of DiVinci’s horse and the Last Supper. Sadly DiVinci made a clay sculpture of the Horse, never casting it in bronze, which was then used for practice shooting by the i ...more
Feb 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I found this to be an extraordinary revelation of the 14th century. The characters breathed with passion, the settings were clear before my eyes and history was laid out before me. I had no trouble following Ms. Essex's flow of the story, whether told in present tense, or slipping to past tense to agonize with a character's tortured thoughts.

Well done, Ms. Essex!

I am going to obtain copies of 'Kleopatra' and 'Pharoah' as I cannot wait to meet that extraordinary woman. I have no doubt those book
Jun 10, 2019 rated it liked it
The author tells the fascinating story of two Este sisters who marry powerful men and are in constant competition to out do the other. It takes place in the 15th and 16th century mainly in Milan and Mantua. The main focus is NOT DaVinci, although the title might lead you to believe so, and it certainly wasn't the swans that he painted so beautifully. If you are interested in the Renaissance, the political milieu of the day and the great artists who earned accolades while they lived, this is the ...more
Lee Roversi
Feb 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
Another entrancing historical novel, my favorite genre. This one weaves the political and artistic worlds of 15th century Europe effortlessly. Centered around the world of two aristocrat daughters and their lives and how they are intertwined with Leonardo daVinci, this novel captured me from the first page until the last. As well as enjoying the read, I felt I learned a great deal about that time in history.
Apr 19, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Renaissance Italy. Competing sisters. Marriage as a political tool. Wealth. War. Betrayal. Loss. Leonardo (yes, as in da Vinci). If you enjoy historical fiction and have a special affinity for any of the above, you will likely enjoy this book. I did (even though I admit to knowing very little about the above topics prior to reading it. Now, with my newfound knowledge, there's nothing to be done but to take a trip to Italy!) ...more
Jun 06, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5 Stars. A novel based on actual people at the end of the 15th Century. Renaissance Italy, the City of Milan and Leonardo da Vinci play important parts in two actual sisters lives along with their power hungry husbands. Interesting story...especially when you go online and view da Vinci's paintings of the sisters and the mistress'. One of the sisters is thought to be the model for the Mona Lisa. Good read. ...more
Sep 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020
A snippet of Italian history at the end of the 15th century. Two sisters, princesses of one of italy's city states, are married off to two important men. Did the older girl marry the wrong man?
Amidst the sisters rivalry is the fact Leonardo works for the younger sister's husband. She has no desire to be painted, though her sister covers the idea of the genius making her immortal.
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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 http://

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