Karen Essex Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Karen Essex

Karen Essex

An interview with Karen Essex

A Conversation with Karen Essex about Leonardo's Swans

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?
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.

Most chapters of Leonardo's Swans begin with notebook entries attributed to Leonardo. Did you invent these sections?
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.

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.
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.

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.

Are all the paintings in the book based on real works of art?
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.

Are the stories of how Leonardo came to paint The Last Supper and his legal entanglements over The Virgin of the Rocks actually true?
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.

According to your book, some of his greatest work, like the statue of The Horse in Milan, has not survived.
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.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!
Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    •  
    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    •  
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    •  
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    •  
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    •  
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    •  
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
    •  

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket
    The Marriage of Opposites
    by Alice Hoffman
    Alice Hoffman's latest work, The Marriage of Opposites, is a historical fiction novel focusing on ...
  • Book Jacket: Miss Jane
    Miss Jane
    by Brad Watson
    National Book Award Finalist Brad Watson returns with an intimate novel about one woman's journey to...
  • Book Jacket: Dinner with Edward
    Dinner with Edward
    by Isabel Vincent
    In late 2009 Isabel Vincent and her family were still newcomers to New York City. She and her ...

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Since She Went Away
    by David Bell

    A chilling novel of guilt, regret, and a past which refuses to die...

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    The Secret Language of Stones
    by M. J. Rose

    "A fantastic historical tale of war, love, loss and intrigue."
    – Melanie Benjamin

    Read Member Reviews

Members review books pre-publication. Read their opinions in First Impressions

Book Discussions
Book Jacket
The Fair Fight
by Anna Freeman

A page-turning novel set in the world of 18th century female pugilists.

About the book
Join the discussion!
Summer Stunner
Summer Giveaway

Win 5 books, each week in July!

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

W M T N, W C F All

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.

 
X

BookBrowse Summer Giveaway

We're giving away
5 books every
week in July!