The Marriage Portrait: A novel

by Maggie O'Farrell

Hardcover, 2022

Call number




Knopf (2022), 352 pages


Florence, the 1550s. Lucrezia, third daughter of the grand duke, is comfortable with her obscure place in the palazzo: free to wonder at its treasures, observe its clandestine workings, and to devote herself to her own artistic pursuits. But when her older sister dies on the eve of her wedding to the ruler of Ferrara, Moderna and Regio, Lucrezia is thrust unwittingly into the limelight: the duke is quick to request her hand in marriage, and her father just as quick to accept on her behalf. Having barely left girlhood behind, Lucrezia must now make her way in a troubled court whose customs are opaque and where her arrival is not universally welcomed. Perhaps most mystifying of all is her new husband himself, Alfonso. Is he the playful sophisticate he appeared to be before their wedding, the aesthete happiest in the company of artists and musicians, or the ruthless politician before whom even his formidable sisters seem to tremble? As Lucrezia sits in constricting finery for a painting intended to preserve her image for centuries to come, one thing becomes worryingly clear. In the court's eyes, she has one duty: to provide the heir who will shore up the future of the Ferranese dynasty. Until then, for all of her rank and nobility, the new duchess's future hangs entirely in the balance.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member japaul22
I've only read one other book by O'Farrell, [Hamnet], which I was blown away by. [The Marriage Portrait] was similarly well-written and engaging to read, but struck quite a different tone. Because it is set in the 16th century and is based on the life of Lucrezia de'Medici, I was expecting
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something a bit more erudite from Maggie O'Farrell. Instead, I got a domestic abuse thriller. I liked it once I accepted that.

Lucrezia grows up at the comfortable court in Florence, always the odd child out, but still loved and cared for. Then her older sister dies and she takes her place in a marriage to the Duke of Ferrara at the very young age of 15. At first she is impressed with his kindness to her, but cruel streaks in his personality begin to show through. He is desperate for an heir, and if Lucrezia can't provide she fears for her life.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, but as I said earlier, it's better approached as a suspense novel about a dangerous marriage that happens to be set in the 1550s. Fun characters and setting and writing that propels you along. But not a deep historical dive.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici lived during the 16th century and was the daughter of the Duke of Florence. She left Florence to begin married life with Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, becoming a Duchess at a very young age. Official records are scarce, but Lucrezia is known to have died in
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1561, very early in the marriage. The historical note that opens this novel reads, “The official cause of her death was given as ‘putrid fever,’ but it was rumoured that she had been murdered by her husband.”

Maggie O’Farrell offers a rich and plausible story of Lucrezia’s life and her untimely death. As the daughter of a duke, she led a privileged life, but also one with few choices. Marriage was a transaction, in which daughters were wedded off in hopes of strengthening political alliances. Initially, Lucrezia’s union looks promising; Alfonso is kind and respectful. But his dark side becomes increasingly apparent, especially when Lucrezia fails to immediately produce an heir (and yes, this was always the woman’s fault). Lucrezia is stuck: she cannot return to her family, nor can she live as an independent woman. She is, effectively, a prisoner in her own home.

This novel is so well written. The narrative structure gradually reveals details of Lucrezia’s life like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle falling into place. Despite knowing how her story ends, the tension is palpable. The ending is especially well done. The author’s note at the end clarifies which elements were fact, and which were fiction. There may have been little documentation of Lucrezia’s life, but other women of the period – other wives of Italian noblemen, in fact – were murdered by their husbands. How many times did this happen without proof? It brings an air of credibility to the theory that Lucrezia was poisoned, and draws attention to the ways in which women have been marginalized and written out of history.
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LibraryThing member phyllis.shepherd
I enjoyed this book very much, and I'm looking forward to reading one of the author's earlier books, Hamnet.
LibraryThing member kimkimkim
In her distinctive and recognizable style, Maggie O’Farrell has crafted a compelling book on the short life of Lucretia de’ Medici, Duchess of Ferrara. Beautifully written, with an intelligent story, a well thought out plot and a formidable discussion of what might have been the inner thoughts
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and perceptions of Lucretia de’ Medici from her time in the nursery to her unhappy betrothal at the age of thirteen and subsequent life as the wife to a man with the personality of Janus.
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
I didn't expect this, but I actually liked this novel much more than the author's previous book Hamnet. Based on the mysterious death of Lucrezia de Medici, Duchess of Ferrara, in the sixteenth century, this novel creates a compelling portrait of a young noblewoman struggling in a marriage her
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parents arranged. Unable to produce the son her husband desires and knowing he plots her demise, Lucrezia seeks a way out of her marriage. Overall, this was a fascinating novel that left me interested in Lucrezia's story and wanting to know more.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
This is the story of a young girl, the daughter of a Duke, who is married to another Duke after her sister unexpectedly dies. There is an age difference, but Alfonso seems to treat Lucrezia kindly as she moves to her new home away from Florence where she grew up. Alfonso has two sisters, one who is
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very kind and the other rather distant. His mother has left due to converting to Protestantism. Alfonso is the only son.

After a short time and Lucrezia is not pregnant, Alfonso gets more and more distant and cruel. He has commissioned her wedding portrait and she builds a sort of "understanding" with one of the portraitist's assistant.

The ending is rather unusual and it presents a possibility that history does not bear out - that Alfonso actually killed Lucrezia.

A good read, but maybe just a bit too long.
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LibraryThing member jtsolakos
An interesting tale of the Middle Ages. To think that 13-year-old girls were forced to marry. What violence they must have endured. Maggie O'Farrell gives us a well written-beautifully written account of this age. I highly recommend this book.
LibraryThing member thiscatsabroad
I know that I´m among the minority of readers who wasn´t a huge fan of Hamnet, so I thought/hoped that Marruage Portrait would redeem the writer´s much lauded talents in my eyes. I was genuinely excited to delve into the 16th c with Lucrezia de'Medici, but I found her writing - again - to be
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heavy handed, wading through muck, & ridiculously verbose. The story should have been gripping & wasn´t.
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LibraryThing member AliceaP
While I really enjoyed this author's other book, Hamnet, this one just didn't hold my attention. I think largely this is because I didn't feel any investment in the main character (or indeed any of the characters). I tried so hard to give this book a try but in the end I had to call it quits.
LibraryThing member khoyt
Words fail me. Ms. O'Farrell's descriptions of people, places, thoughts, and emotions are beyond my ability to communicate faithfully. Read the back of the book for reviews written by people who make their living with words and you can get a sense of how great this book is. I have marked it
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re-readable because I would like to immerse myself in her prose again and again. It is a must-read for one and all!
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LibraryThing member elkiedee
Lucrezia is a young girl who loves drawing and painting and is fascinated by animals and birds. She is born into a the wealthy aristocratic Medici family, the 5th child of Cosimo, Grand Duke of Tuscany. However, the destiny for girls and women like Lucrezia is very restricted - her oldest brother
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will inherit their father's title, and she and her sisters will be married off to other wealthy men from other powerful families and forge links with other ruling dynasties. It has long been planned that Lucrezia's beautiful older sister will marry the Duke of Ferrara, but when she dies before the wedding, Lucrezia is offered in her place at just 13.

A protective servant helps Lucrezia to delay the inevitable for a year or so, but then she is married off and living in Ferrara. Her husband's sisters compete for her attention, though only one seems to want to be friendly rather than critical. Then two young men working as assistants with a society portrait painter arrive, followed by the famous artist himself, another rather sleazy, predatory character.

The Marriage Portrait is well written, evocative and compelling, but I found this account of a girl still in her mid teens in a kind of captivity with an angry controlling man very sad and difficult to read. She realises very early on that her husband plans to kill her. This is based a story from real historical records, of just one of a number of girls/women from wealthy families who died not long after marriage, whether from common contagious illnesses and childbirth complications or deliberate murder, and it is never in doubt that she is in real danger. It is also clear that she is trapped in a life that she doesn't like, and that the activities she does enjoy like her art can just be taken away from her on the whim of her husband and his advisors.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
Maggie O'Farrell's latest novel imagine the life of Lucrezia d'Este, who is believed to have been the inspiration for Robert Browning's poem, "My Last Duchess" (although the painting has either been lost or was itself a figment of Browning's imagination). The middle daughter in a large family,
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Lucrezia is not as pretty as her sisters but has a bold streak that she struggles against (it's not ladylike). When her sister Marie suddenly dies, her parents, reluctant to lose out on an politically advantageous match, marry the 15-year old Lucrezia to her fiancé, Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, who is almost twice her age.

The chapters of the book jump around in time, sometimes causing confusion. And Alfonso can be confusing, too. Lucretia tries to please him, but she soon realizes that his moods and demands are unpredictable. He is the type of man who can turn from being gentle and affectionate one moment into a terrifying brute the next, without warning. The main thing he desires from the marriage is a male heir, and when one isn't produced within the first year, he of course blames his young wife--even though rumors of his impotence are circulating, since he has had several mistresses but no bastards.

Throughout the book, Lucretia does her best to keep her husband happy and to find a little peace, if not happiness, for herself. She befriends her maid, enjoys walks outdoors, and paints small pictures that often depict fantastical scenes that she then paints over. But there is no pleasing Alfonso. No spoiler here, especially if you know Browning's poem, but O'Farrell decides to reveal in the first pages that Lucrezia believes that her husband is trying to kill her. Her dilemma, of course, is that there seems to be no escape.

I enjoyed the novel overall, even though it's rather heavy-handed on description and detail, but I think that is probably meant to reflect the boredom and confinement of Lucretia's life as duchess, and perhaps also her painterly eye. O'Farrell's Hamnet is one of my favorite historical novels, and I expected that it would be hard to match, let alone supercede, and The Marriage Portrait>/i> validates this observation.
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LibraryThing member Smits
I really like O’Farrel’s novels and this one did not disappoint. Set in 1560 in Florence Italy with the ever interesting Medici family, this is story of Cosimo lst 15 year old daughter. In real life there is only one portrait of her as she died at age 16 after one year of marriage to the Duke
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of Ferrara. This “ marriage portrait” is cleverly woven into the fabric of this story and , apparently, is the inspiration for Robert Browning’s poem “ My Last Duchess”.
Lucretia de Medici becomes a living child, a young girl, and a reluctant bride of 15 in this novel as she travels from her home in Florence to Ferrara, the young innocent wife of a man she barely knows.O’ Farrel cleverly portrays Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara as a kind and attentive husband mostly…. I won’t spoil the ending but the mystery that surrounded this young bride continues right to the dry end of this novel and beyond !! I loved the ending !!!
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
The Marriage Portrait, Maggie O’Farrell, author; Genevieve Gaunt, narrator
The book is based on the brief life, and uncertain death, of Lucrezia di Cosimo de'Medici,
the teenaged bride of Alfonso, II, d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, in what was determined to be a marriage of great consequence, advancing
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the status of the two families. Try as he might, the Duke was unable to produce an heir with any of his consorts, but blame was never assigned to him, although even with several wives and lovers, no heir was conceived. His personality, in this book, is described as fractured, sometimes kind, sometimes brutal, a man of many moods, but the overall picture of him is one of a cruel master. Contrast that with the compassionate, unassuming, kindly description of Lucrezia, and you have an accident waiting to happen.
The book begins with the young Duchess surmising that she is about to be murdered by her husband, and it progresses to intimate his plan and how it is intended to be carried out. The prose is smooth and lucid. The vocabulary used is literary and paints rich images of the times with the characters, the landscapes and Italy easily imagined by the reader. Lucrezia’s character shines, while Alfonso‘s darkens and withers in comparison, as time passes. Lucrezia’s kindness toward underlings competes sharply with Alfonso’s condescension and cruelty toward them. His demands are often barbaric, and they are acted upon by his confidant, even when she objects because she is powerless to intercede. He demands obedience and utter fealty. He will accept nothing less from her, and she understands her place and acquiesces, often remaining silent against her better judgment. She has neither her family or Alfonso’s in her court, and has only her maid, more powerless than she is, as her confidant. Keep in mind that the life of Lucrezia is described before she even reaches her 16th birthday. Young and naïve, she is ill-prepared for the life of a Duchess.
The book expounds upon the place of a woman in those days, which was as chattel, with little or no power to be independent, either in bed or in her spare time. She was expected to be obedient, to serve her husband in all of his needs, no matter how grotesque or selfish, and to do so with joy. Wives who displeased husbands were easily disposed of, for even ludicrous reasons, such as suffocating themselves while asleep, and it was accepted by the power of the male dominated society, in pretty much all cases, that this explanation was both acceptable and true. Those men who were suspected, often quietly for reasons of personal safety, of murdering their wives, were never pursued.
It is fairly obvious that married to the author’s writing skill is her ability to flesh out a creative tale from the limited resources available. She took poetic license with the timeline, the locations of certain scenes, the titles and even some names to produce more clarity. I thought it worked exceedingly well, for me.
The novel did leave some unanswered questions, which is to be expected, since it is an imagined scenario, not a true story. Why did no one wonder where Emilia was, for instance, after Lucrezia’s death? Why was she not suspected of being the illegitimate child of Lucrezia’s father, since the two girls were so similar, and Emilio’s mother, Sophia, was Lucrezia’s milk mother and had a special fondness for her? With technology today, all things being otherwise equal, would the book’s conclusion be realistic? Information is so quickly and easily disseminated today that secrets are often revealed and twisted. Is there any real evidence that would make this conclusion even plausible, when in reality she was barely a teen when betrothed? Would she have had feelings of remorse having, in essence, been responsible for Emilia’s murder? Did the mystical moments enhance or detract from the story, were they meant to be real, hallucinations of some kind or dreams? What the book truly emphasized was the helplessness of women, the power of the man and the demands of royalty. It is impossible to uncouple the story from the brutality and lack of a moral compass that existed then, and one has to wonder how it compares to modern society today. Are we better off? What has really changed?
This novel is read perfectly by Genevieve Gaunt, so much so that coupled with the author’s descriptions and details, listening to this was truly like viewing it in the theater of my mind. I recommend the audio over the print because the narrative might grow tedious with extraneous dialogue, while the narrator enriches it with her portrayal, never overpowering the story. The author has used Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess” as the inspiration for her novel, which is creative, lyrical and intuitive as it presents a picture of life as a woman, on or about, the mid 1500’s. How much has changed since then will be the subject of debate for book clubs, I feel certain. The Marriage Portrait novel in its entirety, and the actual marriage portrait of Lucrezia, will compete with each other for a position of prominence. Who was the real Lucrezia, the one painted or the one briefly known?
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LibraryThing member Perednia
O'Farrell imagines the life of the young girl portrayed in Browning's "My Last Duchess" in a brilliant novel of Italian politics and art. While I have ambivalent feelings about the ending, the creation of Lucrezia as a complete character is fabulous.
LibraryThing member FormerEnglishTeacher
This was my second Maggie O’Farrell novel, the first being the acclaimed “Hamnet.” That book, like this one was masterfully written, and it is O’Farrell’s writing that I am most in awe of. “Hamnet” seemed to channel the Bard himself, and this one, “The Marriage Portrait” had hints
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of a fairy tale in its style. Being a former English teacher, I am always on the lookout for books that not only tell a good tale but are well written too. That said, it seems like O’Farrell in both books is on something of a crusade to combat paternalism. Men take a pretty good beating in both books, maybe deservedly so. And, yes, I am a man, so perhaps it is gender paranoia on my part. I did enjoy this book and for the first time in a long time, I anxiously awaited the end to see what would happen. Without giving any spoilers away, it is worth the wait and not necessarily predictable. It’s a well crafted and sufficiently clever finale for an admirable novel. Speaking of its genre, O’Farrell has a section after the conclusion explaining what parts of the story actually happened and what parts were changed and for what reasons.
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LibraryThing member jillrhudy
Thank you to Netgalley and Penguin Random House for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. This novel was very hard to read due to triggers, but I stuck with it until the end and was very glad I did. The ending richly rewarded my patience and was one of those "hug your Kindle and sigh" endings.
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Maggie O'Farrell is an amazingly skilled writer. The research and history are solid throughout, and the book makes it clear that the events are within the context of the fate of untold numbers of women throughout history. Due to being triggered so much I do not think I can be completely objective; some part of my brain just could not fully engage with the story, but I give it five stars and count it among my top ten favorite books of the year.
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LibraryThing member EllenH
The 1550's, Renaissance Italy, women's life in a troubled royal court....I'll always think of this book when I view those beautiful paintings of those women dressed heavily in jewels looking at us. This Dutchess, Lucressia, led a life of confinement, and duty, surrounded by intrigue and
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ruthlessness. So little is actually known about her, but this book captures the wonderfully written and well researched possibilities.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
The Marriage Portrait is based on the life of Lucrezia de Medici, who married the Duke of Ferrara. The book opens with Lucrezia realizing that her husband intends to kill her, and then alternates between the story of her childhood and marriage, and the days of her impending death.

O'Farrell is a
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brilliant writer. She makes people and places come to life. Lucrezia is a interesting and relatable character, and the book is suspenseful and hard to put down.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
I don’t know what, but I was dreading this one. Maybe it was a case of judging the book by its cover. Instead of a dry history I found a riveting portrayal of a young girl trapped in a dangerous marriage. It’s based on the real marriage of Lucrezia de' Medici and Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara.
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The author does an incredible job, building the tension in the tear as the options narrow for the Lucrezia.

The author was inspired by the real family portraits and the poem “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning.
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LibraryThing member Doondeck
Great story with lots of historical touchstones.
LibraryThing member Castlelass
Fictionalized version of the short life of a real person, Lucrezia de' Medici, focused on her marriage to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. As the story opens, in 1561, Lucrezia believes her husband has brought her to a remote estate in order to murder her. The narrative then flashes back to tell
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the story of Lucrezia’s early life and how she arrived at this point.

Lucrezia is a beautifully drawn character. She is portrayed as a free spirit and an artist who loves nature and animals. Her life goes fairly well until her sister dies, and her life changes irrevocably. The story focuses on the distresses suffered by child brides. Lucrezia is basically sold for political purposes by her family. She goes into marriage unprepared for the expectations placed upon her. It is, of course, “her fault” if she does not immediately produce an heir even though her husband has never been successful in producing offspring before.

The historical record shows that Lucrezia died of tuberculosis, but rumors abounded that she had been poisoned. The author takes this tidbit and crafts it into an engrossing narrative. O’Farrell’s elegant writing style vividly describes Renaissance Italy. It is a wonderful example of historical fiction done well. Themes include loss of innocence, intrigue, lies, betrayals, greed, and defiance. The ending contains an unexpected turn. Be sure to read the author’s note, which clarifies what is real versus what is fictionalized.

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LibraryThing member Hccpsk
Very few details remain about Lucrezia d’Medici, a daughter of the famous Medici family of Renaissance Italy, so Maggie O’Farrell has a lot of room to maneuver as she tells her story in The Marriage Portrait. O’Farrell imagines a difficult but creative child who grows into an unusual teen in
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the very religious and restrictive Medici household before an arranged marriage at 15. Not a lot happens in the book, but O’Farrell creates vivid characters and a very realistic and dark world that Lucrezia must navigate which makes for a very readable novel. Anyone who enjoyed Hamnet will find a similar style and themes in The Marriage Portrait.
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LibraryThing member rmarcin
The story of Lucrezia de Medici who was married to a duke when she was only 15. She is a smart, outspoken young woman, but the duke only wants her so she can bear an heir. When she realizes that he has taken her to a remote place with the intention of killing her, she tries to imagine how she can
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This is a beautifully told story of a real woman and her childhood marriage. I was entranced reading the story. I enjoyed this story better than Hamnet, which had beautiful prose.
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LibraryThing member pgchuis
I read this gradually for an online book club, but I think it would have been better read in one go, given the dual timeline of the novel itself. I found it an interesting read, although I tired a bit of Lucrezia seeing everything in terms of how she would paint it, and I skimmed some of her dreams
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towards the end.

I knew nothing of the historical figure, so the suspense as to whether her husband really did wish her dead worked for me. The ending was also satisfactory to me, although I felt sorry for Emilia. I thought the depiction of Lucrezia's naive belief that her marriage would be like that of her parents was touching.

I wouldn't re-read this though, as it was dark and mainly depressing.
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Women's Prize for Fiction (Longlist — 2023)
British Book Award (Shortlist — 2023)
Irish Book Award (Nominee — Novel — 2022)
Waterstones Book of the Year (Shortlist — 2022)




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