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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 !!!
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
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?
O'Farrell is a
The author was inspired by the real family portraits and the poem “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning.
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.
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.
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.