The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell
Published by Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date: September 6, 2022
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Historical, Literary
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I adored Maggie O’Farrell’s last novel, Hamnet. She returns, with another novel set in the 1500s, but in Italy this time. The Marriage Portrait is about a young Italian princess and bride, Lucrezia of the famous Medici family, known for its support of key artists and scientists of the Renaissance. The Marriage Portrait is both her story and the name of one of the few portraits that exists of this girl who would be dead by her 16th birthday.
Lucrezia was the 3rd daughter of the de’ Medicis of Florence. With a learned and artistically inclined father, even the girls in the family were well-educated. But while their mother had no qualms about education or art, she was a Spanish princess so her daughters were raised traditionally, out of sight of the world. The only men they interacted with were their father and brothers. For Lucrezia, her place in the family is one of benign neglect. That is until her older sister Maria dies before marrying the future Duke of Ferrara, jeopardizing an important political alliance. Lucrezia becomes the replacement bride despite being only 13 to the Duke’s 24.
She continues to live with her parents until she reaches the ripe old age of 15, when the Duke claims his throne and his new bride. Lucrezia leaves home for a part of Italy she’s never seen to preside over a court that speaks an unfamiliar dialect and has different customs. She knows nothing of the world or of Alfonso, the Duke, an urbane man, a stranger and the first man she’s ever been alone with.
O’Farrell imbues the seemingly unexceptional Lucrezia with a rich inner life that presents itself through her love of art, the natural world, and painting. A quiet observer of the world happening around her, means her paintings are startling in their portrayals. But now she finds herself the one observed, subjected to intense scrutiny—married to a stranger, and living with only one goal: produce an heir for the last son of the d’Este dynasty.
Some might question what in 1500s Italy and the life of one inconsequential duchess could be interesting enough for a novel? Lucrezia merits attention with her unique and even shrewd perspective of a situation where she is nothing more than a pawn. In her inimitable way O’Farrell layers in details of the minutiae of the times to create vivid scenes. In historical fiction women’s clothing is often described, but our modern mindset latches onto the fantastical—frothy, rich, expansive creations that swept along floors with the quiet ease of movement on water. O’Farrell dashes that illusion with Lucrezia’s wedding gown:
The gown rustles and slides around her…the silk moving against the rougher nap of the underskirts, the bone supports of the bodice straining and squealing against their coverings, the cuffs scuffing and chafing the skin of her wrists, the stiffened collar hooking and nibbling at her nape, the hip supports creaking like the rigging of a ship. It is a symphony, an orchestra of fabrics…
Of course. This is the first time I’ve considered what a royal court of the times must actually have sounded like. What a racket, women hauling around pounds of fabric and supports, all while expected to remain supple and graceful.
This kind of intimate detail meshes with extraordinary expectations placed on young girls to cement new alliances or strengthen old for their families. Whether it was a gown or a political dynasty they’re weighted down. Whether it was a gown or a political dynasty they’re weighted down. In this way, Lucrezia is subsumed by the unspoken demands made on her. Even her husband refuses to share anything beyond social niceties—until she questions, at which time she’s sternly warned to stay quiet. And so, she does, forging her own identity within. The Marriage Portrait may not have a fast-moving pace, but I was more than willing to slow down and enter Lucrezia’s bright mind through O’Farrell’s elegant prose.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Knopf in exchange for an honest review.*