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Want to Experience Time Travel? Read the Novel, The Marriage Portrait

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Maggie O'Farrell's 2022 story of Lucrezia Medici

Oil on tin of Lucrezia de Medici by Bronzino or a Bronzino apprentice. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

You've heard of the Medici family in Italy during the Renaissance, right?

True confession:

Rarely am I motivated to buy books about long-dead English queens or wives of kings. Dukes, duchesses, princesses, lords, and ladies don't excite me. While many other readers are captivated by Regency novels, I dismiss them. Reading about people born into wealth and status in faraway countries centuries ago isn't my usual choice of reading material.

So you're probably wondering why I would want to read a novel about a young woman from the Medici family in Italy in the 1500s, born into wealth, status, and power.

I was drawn to The Marriage Portrait, the novel about the young Lucrezia de Medici because I knew the work of author Maggie O'Farrell from the book, Hamnet, which I found deeply moving and layered with meaning.

Hamnet is the imagined life of William Shakespeare's family, based on what little we know about them, and it deals with the death of Shakespeare's eleven-year-old twin son, Hamnet. I found it to be a poignant study of grief and a beautifully written portrayal of the human desire to remember those who have gone before us.

The Marriage Portrait takes place just before Hamnet, during the Renaissance. It is another "what-might-have-really-happened" story of a historical figure, the young Lucrezia de Medici of Florence, Italy. Lucrezia was a 13-year-old political pawn who was pledged to marry Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara. The marriage took place two years later. She died mysteriously at the age of sixteen in an isolated hunting lodge.

Poor Lucrezia de Medici

We know from the beginning of the book that Lucrezia's husband, Alfonso, is going to kill her...or at least, that's what Lucrezia believes.

While some readers object to the fact that we know that Lucrezia will be murdered from the outset of the book, O'Farrell purposely structures the book this way to build a palpable tension. The reader goes back and forth through time to see how Lucrezia de Medici's background affected her relationship with her powerful husband, a young Duke intent on keeping control of his lands and his legacy.

Will Alfonso really try to kill his spirited young wife? If so, what method will he choose? Will the Duke's right-hand man be the one to perpetrate the crime? Are there any means of escape? Does Lucrezia have any allies? Is there any hope at all that she can survive?

Why would a powerful man need to kill his beautiful young wife, anyway?

Lucrezia has not been able to give Alfonso an heir, and without it, his kingdom will crumple, his power will evaporate, and his family name will die.

What a royal court must be like

Time-traveling is not a reality yet, so reading The Marriage Portrait is as close as I'll ever get to experiencing the atmosphere and intrigue of a Royal, Renaissance-era Court.

I felt like I was there. I could taste the food and hear the voices. I could feel the biting wind on top of the battlements and hear the animal noises in the menagerie. I could see the fabrics and the furnishings because O'Farrell painted a literary picture so real I could step into it.

No wonder art, portraiture, and painting are integral to the story. Much of the novel hangs on the task of painting Lucrezia's marriage portrait, portrayed here as being done by the fictional artist, Bastianino. (In real life, her portrait was painted by Bronzino or one of his apprentices.) When Bastianino sends two apprentices to prepare sketches for the portrait, Lucrezia finds an unexpected friend and soulmate in a mute named Jocomo.

Lucrezia must "sit" for hours, posing for her portrait, but is a task made bearable by her own passion for art and painting. Since she was a child, she has been an artist, painting wild animals and nature scenes on rocks. Then, because it would be inappropriate to paint "wild" things, Lucrezia covers up the first painting with more sedate and socially acceptable landscapes.

Savor the cerebral

The Marriage Portrait is not a rip-roaring page-turner. Instead, it's a cerebral experience, meant to be savored and contemplated. It's a look at the thought processes of a threatened but strong young girl held captive by social norms and male privilege.

Perhaps the most powerful takeaway from The Marriage Portrait is the absolute submissiveness required of women to their husbands. They had no choice who they married, what country they lived in, or what roles they were expected to play. Lucrezia de Medici is a sympathetic girl used as a political pawn for the good of her father.

The Last Duchess

Lucrezia de Medici is a real historical figure, and it is known that she died at the age of sixteen. She did, indeed, marry Alphonso, The Duke of Ferrara, another factual character, and Lucrezia's parents are Cosimo and Eleanora as depicted in the book.

Most everything else in the story is clever conjecture, but O'Farrell bases her story on the Robert Browning poem, "The Last Duchess."

Unless you're a poet, writer, or astute student of literature, you wouldn't be expected to know "The Last Duchess," but the premise is this:

A wealthy Duke (with the subtitle of the poem actually being Ferrara) is giving a tour of his home to a Count who is looking to make a marriage arrangement for his daughter. The Duke shows him around, giving him a tour of his art collection. The picture of "The Last Duchess," hangs behind a curtain.

Perhaps O'Farrell started her book with Lucrezia's admission that her husband is going to kill her because it's the same format as Robert Browning's poem which makes it clear to the reader that his wife is already dead:

"That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive / I call that piece a wonder, now"

Throughout the poem, we glimpse the Duke's true character: Unfeeling, controlling, and cruel, implying that his wife was flirtatious.

" ’twas not / Her husband’s presence only, called that spot / Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek;"
"She thanked men—good! but thanked / Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked / My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name / With anybody’s gift."
"Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, / Whene’er I passed her; but /who passed without / Much the same smile

Art, creativity, courts, and characters

If you like art, you'll appreciate the emphasis on portraiture and painting in the time before cameras.

If you're interested in creativity and what inspires people to generate art, you'll understand Lucrezia's endeavors to express herself.

If you're interested in history, particularly the Renaissance period, The Marriage Portrait is for you.

If you are enthralled with the powerful Medici family, (possibly inspired by the Netflix series, Medici,) then you'll definitely want to read this.

Before I read this novel, I had absolutely no knowledge of the tragic end to this sixteen-year-old wife of the Duke of Ferrara, but now her name and her possible backstory are etched in the minds of many, thanks to this bestseller by Maggie O'Farrell.

"... remarkable ... [O'Farrell] manages to infuse the novel with strikingly vivid detail — minute aspects of life in a Renaissance court captured with a delicate attention to every one of the senses. Lucrezia’s rich inner life, her budding creativity as a painter, and an insightfulness that belies her age are treated to O’Farrell’s elegant, transporting prose ... Granting us access to these small, significant moments, O’Farrell endows Lucrezia with a genuine humanity and gives life to a person whose brief existence could have easily been lost to obscurity."

- Allison Escoto, Avenue Magazine


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