Karen Essex

"Leonardo's Swans"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perksie MAR 22, 2006)

From the Notebook of Leornardo:
"When Fortune comes, seize her firmly by the forelock, for I tell you she is bald in back."

Sisters Isabella and Beatrice d'Este, daughters of the Duke of Ferrara, are Leonardo da Vinci's "Swans," in this fascinating historical novel by Karen Essex. The two sisters, who competed fiercely with each other, were often rivals in love, as well as for position, power, and for Leonardo da Vinci's work. They were both Renaissance women long before the term "Renaissance man" was coined. Each ruled with grace and much intrigue over two of the most cultured courts in Europe - courts, which under their influence came to epitomize the Renaissance - the rebirth in the arts, science and religion - thus advancing the movement, which began in Italy, and eventually became a crucial bridge between the Middle Ages and the modern world.

Both Isabella and Beatrice were betrothed to powerful men. They had been taught since childhood that marriage between noble houses "was no whimsical arrangement based on ephemeral qualities of preference or attraction. The peace of Italy depended on these unions, especially at the juncture in time in which they lived." The young women were considered "ambassadors of Ferrara and protectors of Ferrara's welfare."

Isabella, the d'Este family beauty, had spent her childhood with her parents, tutored by her illustrious mother, Leonora of Naples (a descendent of the House of Aragon). Thus she had been educated well beyond the norm, even for most men of the period. This elder d'Este sister read and spoke Latin impeccably, danced beautifully, sang like a nightingale, played various instruments, read avidly and, although only sixteen, was considered a connoisseur of the arts. How could she not be when she was constantly exposed to the works of Pisanello, Piero della Francesca, the Venetian Jacopo Bellini and Cosimo Tura? With her blonde hair and dark eyes, Isabella was also stunning. Fortunate in her fate, she was engaged to marry a man she loved who was also the appropriate candidate in terms of furthering her parents' political interests. Francesco Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua would wed young Isabella as soon as she turned sixteen.

Beatrice, only a year younger than her sister, had yet to meet her fiance who was twenty-three years her senior. She spent her early years in her grandfather's court at Naples for political reasons. There she was unsupervised and ran wild. Her biggest interest by far was horses and she rode superbly. She was also not adverse to taking risks, as opposed to her more ladylike, intellectual sister. Beatrice was as dark as Isabella was fair, but she was not unattractive. When she returned to her family in Ferrara, she studied hard to catch up with her education, as befitted her station, although she would remain a tomboy for a while yet. Beatrice had been engaged to marry Ludovico Sforza since she was five years-old.

The charismatic Sforza, called "Il Moro" because of his swarthiness, would become Duke of Milan and was one of the wealthiest and most powerful princes of Renaissance Italy. He came to power as regent for his young nephew Gian Galleazzo Sforza. And he showed absolutely no interest in his alliance with Beatrice and the d'Este family, flaunting his mistress in Milan as if she were his wife.

The Renaissance thrived during this period, bringing about artistic and religious transformation. Florentine painter, sculptor, draughtsman, Leonardo da Vinci, a universal genius who typified the Renaissance man, was also an architect, town planner, inventor, scientist, writer and musician who was in his prime. He came under the patronage of Lorenzo de' Medici and then, in 1482, he entered the service of Ludovico Sforza, where he was active as artist, architect and military engineer. Leonardo is a character in the novel, and Isabella desperately wanted to be immortalized in oil by the great "master of masters." However, Ludovico realized that he could only allow Leonardo to paint his sister-in-law after he painted Beatrice, who had no desire to sit for her portrait - especially for an artist who dissected cadavers. Both sisters vied to be Leonardo's patron. Excerpts from da Vinci's notebooks are interspersed with the narrative - an interesting literary device which enriches the plot.

As Beatrice and Isabella matured their petty rivalries diminished. Beatrice finally won the affection and allegiance of her powerful husband. With children came wisdom and serenity which allowed her, before she reached the age of twenty, to become an astute politician, an effective stateswoman and patron of the arts. Isabella, who had been jealous of her sister's powerful alliance and prosperous kingdom, accepted her own lot in life - one that was also enviable. After all, Isabella was to become known eventually as "The First Lady Of The Renaissance."

But the story doesn't end here - it only begins, really. Sixteenth century Italy was not a unified country but an area of powerful and independent city-states, especially Milan, Genoa, Venice, Florence, and Pisa. Milan, the greatest city in Lombardy, was widely regarded as the Mecca of Italian commerce, culture and fashion at that time. It is here that Beatrice presided over her court. Political strife was also rampant, especially the alliances, counteralliances, and regular betrayals surrounding the Italian Wars, which involved all the major states of western Europe and arose over a dynastic dispute concerning Naples.

Ludovico Sforza sought an ally against the Republic of Venice, and encouraged Charles VIII of France to invade Italy, using the Angevin claim to the throne of Naples, then under Aragonese control, (his wife's beloved grandfather), as a pretext. And so began the Italian Wars, along with family estrangements and animosities, betrayals, intrigues, assassinations, invasions, etc.. And Beatrice and Isabella, in the middle of this historical drama, sometimes contributing to it, were trying to survive and, even in the midst of war, to encourage Leonardo and other artists of the period to produce and illuminate beauty for posterity.

Karen Essex breathes life into her characters, especially the two d'Este sisters and Ludovico. Her insight into the great Leonardo and his work, especially through the notebook entries, is extraordinary. The details about the painting of "The Last Supper" are alone worth the read. The author paints a vivid portrait, herself, of the lavish life at the courts of Milan and Mantua.

Intelligently written historical fiction and a terrific read!
  • Amazon readers rating: from 55 reviews


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(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer AUG 01, 2002)

"But on a day like today, where lovers nestled in the shady groves of the Park of Pan, and stalky blooms jutted into a gaudy lapis sky; where falls of white bougainvillea toppled from balconies like rivers of milk, it is easy to forget that the House of Ptolemy was not what it used to be. Today the god's sweet sigh brought everyone into the streets to enjoy the parks and promenades and open air bazaars. Today, everyone smiled as they inhaled the sea-god's whisper. They did not care if it was Greek air, Egyptian air, African air, or Roman air. It had no national character. It simply filled their lungs and made them happy."

In this first novel of a two part series, we watch Kleopatra grow from being a child intimidated by her older sister to an exiled queen. The book starts off with the death of her mother, which happened when she was a little girl. Her older half sister Thea, unsure of her own future, decides to create one by taking her mother's place in her step father's bed. She soon becomes Queen in truth, and insists that she be called mother. Kleopatra only knows a handful of things; she loves her father, her older sister Berenike hates her, and she will never call Thea mother. Read excerptThis determination of spirit will serve her well in the coming years. Shortly after Thea dies, Kleopatra comes of age, and become coregent with her father. At the age of 18, she effectively becomes the ruler of her people.

Kleopatra is a very strong character, both historically and fictionally. She is put at odds with most of her family because she, like her father, see that the only way not to be conquered by Rome is to become Rome's ally. Such sentiments are extremely unpopular with the citizens of the two lands of Egypt, but she, loving her people dearly, stands by this as the only way. She is very intelligent, generous, kind, plotting constantly to keep her crown and her kingdom safe. She doesn't do this for the love of power, but because she feels she is the one best suited to rule her people.

Everyone has bits of information tucked away, things they've picked up from movies or books, things that stuck while studying for school. The best historical novels take the bits and pieces of information relevant to that period and put them together, giving things a place, an order that unifies all the information that you've gathered and making it sensible. Kleopatra does that, for it shows you the chain of ancestry from Alexander the Great to her time. It reminds you of things that you may have known but not realized, such as the fact that Kleopatra is a Greek, not an Egyptian, and that her house of Ptolemy had been the Greek rulers of Egypt from the time Alexander of Macedon conquered them. When I think of Kleopatra, I think of the Cleopatra of asps and Marc Anthony. I do not remember that she is the seventh Kleopatra of her house to bear the name, the woman who became Caesar's lover, and bore him his only son. We bury her power in sensuality, we point to the great romance between her and Mark Anthony and forget the fact that she was a formidable queen of great power. Egypt at that time was the richest land around, and her capital of Alexandria a place of beauty and refinement. After her death, her people genuinely mourned her, remembering her rule for years as the best. Essex reminds us of these things, weaving beautiful details in with the harsh realities Kleopatra had to face as she slowly gained her place of power. She shows us a main character who is not only a queen, but a woman to be admired.

The writing style is very compelling, all of the elements of story are brought together to tell a tale that is as mesmerizing as the sway of a King Cobra and historically accurate enough to feel realistic. It is also very human. Kleopatra is the type of person that you want to know more about, that you can feel a great deal of sympathy for.

At first, I thought that the spelling of Kleopatra was a choice made because Essex thought her historical study deemed it more likely correct than the version we usually see. I now see it as a division...a way to split this story off from the silly Cleopatra who was ruled by her passions, accused by history as both being a hapless pawn and prostitute who brought two great men to their dooms. This is the real Kleopatra, and she is finally taking her proper place in history.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 28 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Kleopatra at MostlyFiction.com

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(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer AUG 01, 2002)

"The pirate lay the carpet before Caesar, using his own knife to clip the ties that bound it. As he slowly and carefully unrolled it, Caesar could see that it was a fine example of the craftsmanship that was only to be found in the eastern countries...suddenly, as if she were part of the geometrical pattern itself, a girl rolled out from its folds, sat up cross-legged, and looked at him...Her eyes were green and slanted upward, and they challenged him now to speak to her, as if it was Caesar who should introduce himself to this little tart. But it was the pirate who spoke first
"'Hail Queen Kleopatra, daughter of Isis, Lady of the Two Lands of Egypt."

In this second novel of the Kleopatra series, the Queen moves into the better known part of her history. She still believes that the only way to keep from becoming the latest conquest for the Roman empire is to become its most important ally, and she meets with Julius Caesar, hoping that he will back her claim to the throne over her half-siblings Ptolemy and Arsinoe. Caesar has her continue the tradition of her people, and she marries her half brother, Ptolemy, in order to keep with the conditions in her father's will. She will soon become Caesar's lover, and bear him his son. After Caesar's death at the hands of those who love him, she becomes Mark Anthony's partner and eventually his wife. In this book we are shown how delicate public opinion is, and how easily swayed as people who fear the power and strength of Kleopatra work to engineer her down fall.

Read excerpt

The first thing that strikes the reader is the way the book is set up. We begin the book with the 20th year of her reign, and then go back to the third. The 20th year will keep showing up once in awhile between chapters, foreshadowing the doom to come. This is a clever way of doing things, because it sets the tone for the story, reminding us that while everything seems happy and positive, it will not always be so. It softens the impact of the end, mercifully, and keeps the reader moving on to discover why things became this way.
Perhaps, at least for me, the most tragic aspect of a fictionalized history where the characters are so well known is the fact that their end is inevitable. I kept mentally begging Julius Caesar not to go into the senate, especially when I saw that the date was quite close to the ides of March. I kept waiting for someone to pull a knife. The point is, Essex writes these people in such a way as to make them very likable. They are all realistic, and they feel historically correct. Kleopatra always feels like a Greco-Egyptian monarch to me, yet she is so sympathetic. It makes the facts of their lives and the conclusion that you know the book is going to reach painful, as you secretly hope that Essex will go mad and declare that history had it all wrong and create a much happier ending. It's also what makes the book so readable, as you see the world through Kleopatra's eyes and discover the probable reasoning behind the actions. Essex keeps the narrative going, so that I was swept away into this other world, where everything from the cadence of the dialogue to the nasty web of politics felt true to history.

The things that I praised in the last book are kept up in this one. Kleopatra continues to grow, becoming more complex, more fascinating a main character as the story unravels. The battles and the political plottings are all well recreated, the settings sumptuous.
As I mentioned in my review of Kleopatra, Kleopatra isn't usually portrayed very positively. I always give room for poetic license, so all the accusations made of her could be justifiable. Our historical tradition and records often leads more from the Roman side of things, and, well, the victors always have the chance to re-write history. Most of the good that Kleopatra and Anthony did would have been taken away from them, and history bent to make her look like the perfect caricature of an evil and conniving seductress. Time has softened some of this, making her seem to be more of a woman ruled by her love of Mark Anthony.

The books can be read by themselves, but I really recommend reading them both in order. There's enough context in Pharaoh that it would make sense, but then you would miss a lot of the background that made Kleopatra who she is. The first book is called Kleopatra, I think, because this is where we learn who she is as a person...it's about her childhood and growing up and the experiences that formed so much of her later actions and thoughts. Pharaoh is named so (rather than Kleopatra II) because ultimately that's what she is. She is also a woman and a mother, but necessity often forces her to be Pharaoh over all other things.

Essex gives us a woman to admire, to believe in. I'm a bit in awe of the time and the research that Essex has put into these books, piecing together what was left of Kleopatra's history and making a memorable and amazing novel, creating a Kleopatra of powerful significance.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 9 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Pharaoh at MostlyFiction.com

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)


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About the Author:

Karen EssexKaren Essex is an award-winning journalist, a screenwriter, and the coauthor of a biography about cult icon Bettie Page. A former executive in the film industry, she holds an M.F.A. in writing from Goddard College. She was born in New Orleans and lives in Los Angeles.
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