I recently read this book and really enjoyed it. I have to admit that I approached it with some trepidation as novels about Renaissance Italy can be a bit hit and miss but this one was actually very good and clearly very thoroughly researched.
It tells the story of the two Este sisters, Isabella and Beatrice, daughters of the Duke of Ferrara both of whom were to become celebrated patronesses of the arts. Isabella was to become Marchesa of Gonzaga and makes occasional appearances in novels about Lucrezia Borgia as the two women crossed paths when Lucrezia married her brother and became Duchess of Ferrara. Isabella was by all accounts a bit of a domineering termagant who liked to have everything her own way and it must have been a bit of a blow to have the Pope’s beautiful, accomplished and notorious daughter appear on the scene as your new sister in law.
Beatrice was rather different. She is known to have been rather wild in her youth but later calmed down to become an exampolary wife and mother. Her husband, Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan was berefit when she died in childbirth on 3rd January 1497 at the tender age of twenty two.
The book is not only the story of the two sisters but also that of Ludovico, a powerful and intriguing man who set Renaissance Italy on fire with his dynastic ambitions. Like so many of these men, he wasn’t conventionally good looking but had so much charisma that no one seems to have noticed.
Two of his most well known mistresses also feature in Leonardo’s Swans: the beautiful and refined Cecilia Gallerani (1473-1536), who is best known as Leonardo’s Lady With An Ermine and Lucrezia Crivelli, who was Beatrice’s lady in waiting, which caused her mistress much distress and who probably sat for Leonardo’s La Belle Ferronnière: