Excerpted from Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex. Copyright © 2006 by Karen Essex. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
LEONARDO’S SWANS: A Conversation with Karen Essex
Q: Leonardo’s Swans reveals the drama behind some of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous paintings, but the story is told through the points of view of the rivaling Este sisters. Why did you choose to tell it this way?
A: Beatrice and Isabella d’Este, princesses of Ferrara, were women of enormous influence in the Renaissance courts. They ruled with–and in the stead of–their husbands, acted as diplomats and ambassadors, patronized great artists, and influenced fashion. Isabella’s patronage enabled titans of art like Titian, Mantegna, and Raphael to flourish. Yet the history books fail to mention these fascinating woman unless in a perfunctory way as wives of powerful men. I thought that their stories deserved to be brought to modern readers.
Q: Most chapters of Leonardo’s Swans begin with notebook entries attributed to Leonardo. Did you invent these sections?
A: These excerpts are from Leonardo’s notebooks and letters. Some have been paraphrased or rewritten to be more palatable to the contemporary reader, and occasionally, I invented a sentence to give context. Leonardo is such a towering figure–and a controversial one–that I wanted the portrait of him to be drawn from his own thoughts and experiences.
Q: And yet you do not portray him as a “towering figure,” but as a mere mortal who always needs money and who has real “issues” about finishing what he started.
A: Despite his genius, Leonardo shared the quandaries of all artists past or present. He had to feed and clothe himself and his dependents, and he had to maintain his integrity while pleasing his patrons. He was certainly one of the great “rock stars” of his day, but his situation was the same as a modern day rock star who has to fight with his record label over money and the creative content of his songs.
Q: Who are “Leonardo’s Swans,” and why did you choose that title?
A: The swans are Beatrice d’Este, the duke of Milan’s fifteen year old wife; her sister, Isabella d’Este, Marchesa of Mantua; Cecilia Gallerani, the duke’s seventeen year old mistress; and Lucrezia Crevelli, the duke’s later mistress. All the women appear in Leonardo’s art. Leonardo was intrigued with swans. Though the original is lost, a copy of his painting of Leda and the Swan by one of his students, is on the book’s cover. When I read a line about swans in his notebooks, the title, cover art, and theme of the book fell into place.
Q: Are all the paintings in the book based on real works of art?
A: Yes, they are the actual works of Leonardo and the other artists referenced, and the female characters are the flesh and blood subjects of these paintings. In fact, at the end of the book, I detail what happened to most of these characters, and where the specific paintings and drawings can be seen.
Q: Are the stories of how Leonardo came to paint The Last Supper and his legal entanglements over The Virgin of the Rocks actually true?
A: Yes, true down to the detail of how he postponed finishing The Last Supper for years until he found the perfect model for the face of Judas–much to the frustration of his patrons. He also clashed with the monks who commissioned The Virgin of the Rocks. The contract he made with them is in the book, along with the fact that Leonardo failed to honor each and every clause, choosing instead to make a painting that reflected his own vision.
Q: According to your book, some of his greatest work, like the statue of The Horse in Milan, has not survived.
A: I have always been interested in the indelible link between art and power. Who and what survives depends on who is in power. The destruction of Leonardo’s colossal statue of The Horse commissioned by the Duke of Milan and destroyed when he was deposed is no different than the destruction of the colossal buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Art, politics, and money are inextricably linked, and I wanted to explore that tension and that theme.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. While Leonardo’s Swans is written from the points of view of the Este sisters, each chapter begins with an excerpt from the actual notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, who is a pivotal character. How did the portrayal of Leonardo change your opinion of this iconic artist? Were you aware of the breadth of his work, which included weaponry design, anatomy, sculpture, and machinery?
2. Leonardo’s challenges as a genius with a great vision and also a human being who needs to pay his bills and feed his dependents is explored throughout the novel. Did the fact that this great man was plagued by so many ordinary woes surprise you? Is his situation different from the artist’s plight today? Did his problems change your opinion about, or shed light upon, the struggles facing any contemporary artists that you might know?
3. The novel explores the eternal relationship between art and power. What is created and what survives is a direct result of who is in power and who is controlling the purse strings. Leonardo’s most famous paintings were commissioned by his patrons. Other works were not executed because of both war and whim. How does this theme continue to play out in our own culture? Did you make the connection between, say, the destruction of the colossal Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban and Leonardo’s bronze for his colossal horse sculpture being shipped away to make cannons? Or the French soldiers destroying the clay sculpture after the fall of Milan? What works of art have been commissioned with public money in your community? Do you think they reflect the vision of the artist or the vision of those who commissioned them?
4. Isabella d’Este was obsessed with being immortalized by the great artists of her day. What would be a parallel in our own society? Is today’s quest for publicity and self-promotion the same instinct? How do today’s power players seek immortality through art and architecture?
5. Beatrice and Isabella d’Este were mere teenagers when they married and took their positions as co–rulers of great Italian city–states. If they were alive today, they would have been in high school instead of administering huge and complex governments. It is unimaginable that seventeen year–old girls would control treasuries, hear pleas from members of the community and decide resolutions, or commission works of art from great masters. How has our idea of adolescence and womanhood changed over the centuries? Do you think this is a positive or negative evolution?
6. The portrayal of the Este sisters accurately reflects their roles in their communities. Were you surprised that young women wielded such enormous power and influence during the Renaissance? Why is it that women of power are generally left out of the history books? Is all women’s history hidden history? Do you think that today’s young girls would be enriched by learning about the stories of these extraordinary women of the past?
7. The timing of Isabella’s marriage proposal from Francesco Gonzaga prevented her from marrying the man who might have been her true soul mate, Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. Could history have been changed if Ludovico had been subject to Isabella’s stronger control? Do you think that if the marriages had been reversed and Beatrice would have wed Francesco, the outcome for both sisters—indeed, the outcome for the duchy of Milan—would have been more successful?
8. Isabella d’Este’s superior survival skills enabled her to weather the constantly changing political loyalties of her contemporaries, even those in her own family. She went on to become a great collector and patron of the arts and a strong political influence in Italy and beyond. Did she emerge as your favorite character, or did you have more sympathy for Beatrice? Is survival the most important goal after all? Do you think Isabella might have paid a price for “winning?”
9. Each chapter of Leonardo’s Swans is entitled with the name of a tarot card. The tarot deck was invented at the court of Milan and painted most famously by the artist Bonifacio Bembo. The cards reflected the nature of other playing cards of the day and were used to play a Game of Triumphs, or trumps, as is referred to in the novel. Beatrice, in fact, did excel at this game. Do you see the correlation between the tarot cards and the events of the chapters? Do you agree, along with Isabella, that la Fortuna, or the Wheel of Fortune, has a hand in human events?
10. Leonardo da Vinci was recognized in his own time as an innovator and a genius. To put it in contemporary terminology, he was one of the “rock stars” of his day, owing solely to his talent. Has the power of fine art such as painting and sculpture been reduced by the advent of television, video, cinema, and other alternative art forms and media? How important is it to preserve and support the fine arts?