Maggie O’Farrell was inspired by this painting of Lucrezia de’ Medici, Duchess of Ferrara – something about how skeptical, almost frightened she looks in her eyes was captivating to the author. The image becomes even more haunting when taken with the fact that it must have been completed around the time of her marriage to the Duke of Ferrara – with whom she lived for less than a year before her untimely, and some would say suspicious, death at only 16 years old. In The Marriage Portrait, O’Farrell imagines what might have happened to this young girl, basing her account loosely on some historical facts of interest and embellishing other areas as needed for the story. The result is a highly engaging work of literary historical fiction.
The novel follows two timelines, eventually meeting up at the end, in alternating chapters. In the 1561 timeline, Lucrezia is a panicked and suspicious wife trying desperately to understand why her husband has taken her so quickly to a remote fortress. We the reader know that Lucrezia died most likely from tuberculosis – but also that there were suspicions that she was poisoned, priming us to feel every bit of the tension as she interacts with her enigmatic husband. The background chapters provide Lucrezia’s origin story – she really was the fifth child of Eleanora and Cosimo de’ Medici, her birth surrounded on either side by an usual age gap between children. O’Farrell uses this gap, and the dearth of communication between parents and her child or even mentions of her in comparison to her siblings, as a suggestion that maybe Lucrezia was a little different from her siblings. She ascribes to her something passionate, a nearly primal quality that will both enrapture and enrage people around her throughout her life.
We know where this story is going, but it’s still a joy to observe how O’Farrell plots the way towards Lucrezia’s marriage and demise. Nothing about the story or situation is necessarily relatable but the characters are imbued with so much humanity that you really do feel invested in their journey together. As usual, O’Farrell has much to say about the nature of love, even in the presences of cruelty. As empathetic as this story is, I would say I still prefer the devastation of Hamnet, but there is much to love in the fine writing of any O’Farrell novel.