Marek's operatic style (he has done popular biographies of Puccini and Richard Strauss) is a natural for the Renaissance stereotype of high art, low eroticism, and murderous politics. Isabella, the little-known Marchesa of Mantua, doesn't compare with Lucrezia Borgia or the Sforza ladies in treachery or munificence; Mantua, after all, was a small principality. Marek casts her ""as one of the first women who can truly be called liberated,"" a silly notion since Isabella wielded power in the usual feminine fashion--by flattery, charm, and sexual allurement. Married to an indecisive soldier, Isabella maneuvered constantly to preserve Mantua from the designs of the Borgias and their French allies. Even her admiring biographer admits that she was ""a master at flimflam, throwing perfumed dust in her enemy's eyes."" In true Renaissance fashion, the enemies change with ever-shifting political alliances. But Isabella's chief claim to Marek's florid attentions is her avidity as a collector of art and antiques--she cajoled, threatened, and bribed to acquire tapestries, paintings, silver, and jewels. Isabella's correspondence, quoted at length, includes imprecations to Bellini, pleas to Leonardo, and constant reference to her possessions. She seems to have a shade more brains than most, but not enough to redeem this fancy bauble.