This is a very well written and interesting novel based on the lives of 2 sisters who were the wife of and sister in law of one of Leonardo's greatest patrons the Duke of Milan. Set at the turn of the 15th to the 16th century in Italy, this book would have a great deal of interest to anyone who enjoys art history or who would like to explore life at that time through the eyes of lesser known but historical figures.
This book was recommended to me by a friend in Italy where it's a runaway bestseller and has been lauded by critics and art historians. Through the story of the brilliant Este princesses whose place in history is all but forgotten, the author manages to bring Leonardo da Vinci and the Italian Renaissance into blazing technicolor. I was fascinated to learn the circumstances under which Leonardo created The Last Supper, The Virgin of the Rocks, The Mona Lisa, and The Lady with an Ermine, and other famous paintings conceived while he was in Milan. Also, it chronicles the rise and fall of some of the gigantic personalities that made the Renaissance what it was. No mysterious codes here, just fabulous, meticulously researched historical fiction that keeps you turning pages.
A novel in the spirit of Tracy Chevalier and Sarah Dunant, this novel interweaves Leonardo da Vinci in the power struggles of two ruling Renaissance sisters in two northern Italian duchies.
Reading this recent historical fiction novel was a very strange experience its 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, Essexs book is much less flattering to her characters, I believe. Both focus on the two sisters, Beatrice and Isabella dEste, who were prominent players in the Renaissance courts of Italys late 15th century (and were patrons to Leonardo Da Vinci and many other artists of the day.) But while Ennis portrays these women as the well-educated, powerful, and savvy politicians that they likely were (without sacrificing a strong element of personal drama), Essex has the women be much more motivated by personal jealousy and vanity their connivings are shown as more petty games than far-sighted political moves. They are constantly worrying about who is more beautiful than whom, who their husbands are sleeping with, and even Isabellas main goal of being painted by Da Vinci is equal parts vanity and desire to get one over on her sister. Isabella came across as shallow and irritating which, Im fairly sure, historically, she was not.
The other annoying thing about this book is that Essex obviously did some of the research for this book by looking at existing portraits and carvings of her characters, an she spends a great deal of time in the book describing in great detail her personal interpretations of these artworks. OK, so she got me to do a Google image search for some of the works she described, so I guess she succeeded in getting me to want to look at them. But it got to the point where at times I felt like I was reading a museum didactic, not a novel.
Overall, this wasnt bad but I would definitely recommend Duchess of Milan over this book any day!
My favorite thing about this book is that it exposed me to some very interesting people who lived in 15th century Italy. Without it I may have never heard about the incredible Isabella d'Este, may have never looked up the paintings mentioned in this book, may have never thought about Leonardo da Vinci as a man outside of his work.
Ms. Essex did a great job of getting into the women's heads and showing us what they thought and felt at the most important times of their lives. I preferred Isabella not because her character was easier to relate to but because her sections were deeper, more intimate. She was a woman of great intellect, an art connoisseur, a formidable opponent for any man in the political arena as well as a woman of great beauty, grace and charm. It was fascinating to learn about her and I intend to read more about her in the future.
Leonardo da Vinci is a prominent character in this book but we never get to hear about the events from him. He is always talked about by either Esabella or Beatrice and while their descriptions paint an interesting portrait (no pun intended) it would've been very interesting to get his take on the events of the time and the people with whom he was in such close contact. Throughout the book there are excerpts from Leonardo's notes that are both his reflections about the subjects of his studies and to-do lists that give us a glimpse into the mundane part of his life. These excerpts are not invention of the author, they are actually taken from da Vinci's notebooks and effectively bring the reader closer to the time and the characters of the book.
As impressed as I was by the characters this book fell a bit flat for me because of the writing. The narrative went from lively scenes that were very engaging to sections that read more like a chronicle and back. Because of this the novel didn't hold my interest as much as it could have and I had no trouble setting it down and sometimes even found myself zoning out during the accounts of who invaded whom and who was suspected of whose death. The fact that the narrative often changed between past and present tense from one paragraph to the next didn't help eather and even though eventually I managed to ignore the back and forth between the "is" and the "was" the challenge of having to do it detracted from the enjoyment of the book.
I would recommend this novel to those readers who are interested in learning about Italy at that tumultuous time in history, enjoy fascinating characters and feel they'll be able to ignore the inconsistencies in tense and less than stellar bridges between the scenes that actually had some life to them.
Don't get me wrong, the book was well written, and had beautiful, detailed descriptions of life in Italy in the 1500's. My heart ached for my beautiful main character Beatrice. All the excess, and lies, and betrayal, and greed just put me off. The nobles taxed the poor to have expensive tokens of their ego made. It's amazing how little has changed, and how yes, history repeats itself. A wonderful novel for a different person than me. Lovely descriptions of real historical figures, architecture, and artwork. A beautiful written description of the culture and norms of the time.