Following her well-received fictional biography of Cleopatra, Karen Essex's latest novel brilliantly captures the turbulent years of late 15th-century Italy as seen through the eyes of the bold and beguiling Este sisters, whose lives and fates were inextricably woven into the political tapestry of those times.
In 1490, the beautiful and brainy Isabella d'Este of Ferrara, 15, is engaged to Francesco Gonzaga, destined to become the Marquis of Mantua; her younger, homlier sister Beatrice is promised to Ludovico Sforza, the future Duke of Milan. Both marriages are forged solely to cement stronger ties between Ferrara and those more powerful cities. Though Isabella is initially happier in her marriage than Beatrice, she secretly lusts for Ludovico and his political power. The sisters vie constantly with one another, as each triumph in Isabella's life is immediately overshadowed by Beatrice's victory. Above all, Isabella is jealous of the fact that Ludovico is the patron of the famous Leonardo da Vinci; she longs for her beauty to be immortalized by the master of masters. But Ludovico knows he can only commission Leonardo to paint his sister-in-law after he has painted his wife, and Beatrice has no interest in sitting for the artist who has already painted her husband's mistress.
Essex breathes vibrant life into the privileged lives of these two royal families with lavish descriptions of their bejeweled clothing, myriad servants and rooms with lush tapestries and paintings on every wall. The narrative crackles with political intrigue, as Essex carefully outlines the battles between city-states, and the growing animosity between Francesco and Ludovico over France's burgeoning presence in Italy. Of the two sisters, only Beatrice was painted by Leonardo—inserted by him into a mural by a lesser artist on the wall opposite The Last Supper. Though she died in childbirth at age 21, that portrait assured her immortality, leading Essex to bring her short history to life.
Deborah Donovan writes from Cincinnati and La Veta, Colorado.