Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet hit at the right moment; her 2020 novel about the tragic death of William Shakespeare’s son from the bubonic plague made for compelling reading as many of us quarantined during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her next novel, The Marriage Portrait, is a vivid depiction of the harsh manners and rigid expectations for women within ducal courts in 16th-century Italy.
The Marriage Portrait is based on the life of Lucrezia de’Medici, born into one of Italy’s most illustrious families. With parents eager to strengthen ties to other noble Italian houses, Lucrezia’s older sister Maria is betrothed to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. When Maria dies of an unspecified illness just days before the wedding, 15-year-old Lucrezia is offered in her place. Less than a year later, Lucrezia is dead, probably from tuberculosis—but at the time, it was alleged that she was murdered by her husband. This long-lasting rumor became the basis of Robert Browning’s dramatic 1842 poem “My Last Duchess,” which begins, “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive.”
As imagined by O’Farrell, Lucrezia is a free spirit and artist, attuned to the natural world and accepted, if not warmly embraced, by her large Florentine family. Once married, she is out of her league in the tense, gossipy Ferrara household, where she is frightened by her husband’s mercurial moods and his sisters’ cagey secrets. Lucrezia quickly realizes that the longer it takes her to produce an heir, the more danger she is in. As she sits for a formal marriage portrait and cautiously makes a connection with the artist’s apprentice, she remains not only on the periphery of the court but also fearful for her life.
O’Farrell is a marvelous stylist, and The Marriage Portrait is full of the same kinds of intense details that made Hamnet come alive. Her characters are captivating and believable, and the landscape of Renaissance Italy is a veritable gift to the senses, so powerfully does O’Farrell evoke the sights, sounds and smells of forest, castle and barnyard.
From Lucrezia’s early encounters with a tiger in her father’s menagerie to her final days in a wooded fortress, The Marriage Portrait will please readers who relish good historical fiction as well as anyone looking to the past to better understand the present.