In fifteenth-century Italy, while the arts are enjoying an unprecedented renaissance, great changes are afoot in the world: the temporary resolution of a centuries-old battle between Christianity and Islam, the tentacles of the Inquisition throughout Spain and Italy, and Christopher Columbus’ journey towards the new world.
The d’Este sisters, Beatrice and Isabella, are betrothed to two powerful men to further the political interests of their family. Beatrice d’Este, younger than her sister by one year, is promised to the influential and charismatic Ludovico Sforza, the future Duke of Milan. Long before Beatrice marries, Isabella is wed to Francesco Gonzoga, the Marquis of Mantua. Far more sophisticated and schooled in the female arts, Isabella is jealous of Beatrice’s future husband and prosperous kingdom, the riches that await a young girl obsessed only with her equestrian exploits.
A beautiful woman whose flirtatiousness is as natural to her as breathing, it is simply Isabella’s nature to envy what she cannot have, including Ludovico. But the wife of the Marquis of Mantua is amazed at how readily Beatrice is transformed once she has children into a fitting wife to Ludovico, a crafty statesman with designs on extending his power to the Duchy of Milan.
Over the years, as their political fortunes wax and wane, the sisters will outgrow their petty rivalries. Both will become adept at the complex internal machinations of the Italian city-states, the rise of the corrupt Borgia pope, his arch-enemy, Fra Savonarola and an incipient war with France and Germany that threatens all of Italy.
Crowned in the lavish entertainments of the Renaissance, such noble women as Beatrice and Isabella are much admired for their accomplishments and statecraft, classic female beauty the study of artists who flock to the city. Artists are commissioned by wealthy patrons, the sole source of income for these creative souls.
The most treasured artist in Milan is Leonardo daVinci, his patron Ludovico Sforza, Il Moro. Leonardo’s luminous paintings, sculptures and drawings are much coveted by the nobility of Italy and France. Yearning for posterity, Isabella schemes to have Leonardo paint her portrait while Beatrice refuses, intimidated by the great man’s experiments with cadavers. Yet both women appreciate the genius of this artist: “The soul he means to evoke is his own.”
While the sisters are eventually betrayed by the men they have trusted, courtly love remains idealized. Woman is the inspiration for acts of valor and great works of art in Essex’s novel of Renaissance Italy, the opulence and decadence of the great courts where power and excess the coin of the realm.
His canvas all of humanity, the period is immortalized by the consummate skills of Leonardo daVinci. Leonardo alone appreciates the demands of history, his vision beyond the small world to which he is confined: “Oh human misery! Of how many things do you make yourself the slave for money?”