In The Marriage Portrait, Maggie O’Farrell breathes life into a young Florentine woman whom history has largely erased.
Little is known about Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici beyond her marriage at the age of 16 to the wealthy, powerful Duke of Ferrara. Then her death within a year amid rumours she had been poisoned. She would likely have remained a figure glimpsed merely in fragments of dusty sixteenth century documents but for the poem My Last Duchess by Robert Browning, said to have been inspired by Lucrezia.
Browning’s Lucrezia is a joyful figure who finds as much pleasure in the sunset and fresh cherries as in a valuable piece of jewellery. O’Farrell’s Lucrezia is a more rebellious spirit who prowls the passageways in her father’s palace to eavesdrop on royal gossip and intrigue. She’s more interested in observing and painting the natural world than in matrimony.
The Marriage Portrait traces her life from childhood through to her betrothal and marriage in a dynastic arrangement between two powerful families. In a parallel timeline, we find Lucrezia in a dark, high-walled lodge deep in the forest, “a wild and lonely place” owned by the Duke. Here, in the absence of servants and guests, is where her husband, plans to kill her, she believes. Retribution for her failure to produce an heir.
The certainty that he means her to die is like a presence beside her, as if a dark-feathered bird of prey has alighted on the arm of her chair.
It’s a compelling and progressively tense story of a fight for survival in the treacherous political world of the sixteenth century. A world in which daughters like Lucrezia are viewed merely as commodities, pawns to be deployed in a complex manouevre to gain greater power and wealth.
Lucrezia wishes nothing more than to be back at her father’s palazzo, walking the battlements, taking riding lessons, singing and playing the lute. But she knows she is expected to marry. And if it wasn’t Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara it would be a different duke, or a maybe a prince or a nobleman from overseas for “that has what she has been brought up for, to be married. to be used as a link in his [her father’s] chains of power, to produce heirs for men like Alfonso.“
Freedom versus constraint
Throughout The Marriage Portrait, O’Farell weaves together this idea of constraint and escape.
We’re told that at times Lucrezia views her father’s palace as oppressive as a prison and that her wedding dress feels like a cage. Reinforcing this idea of confinement is an episode in which the girl feels an affinity for a tigress her father has acquired for his menagerie.
Seen first from afar as “a lithe, sinuous shape, the markings on the beast’s give Lucrezia the impression of prison brandings “as if captivity had been her destiny all along.” When she is finally allowed to get close to the animal, Lucrezia recognises the pain and sadness that eminates from this creature and it’s yearning to be free. She will, she resolves, appeal to her father to send the animal back to its habitat, to let it bound from the cage back into the trees.
Lucrezia develops her own escape strategies once she is Duchess of Ferrara. She walks in the garden, rides her pony and spends hours in her chambers producing miniature paintings, the true subjects of which she hides under images of classical scenes. But at night, the only way she can “escape” her husband’s visits to her bed, is through a separation of her ‘self’ and her body.
The relief at putting distance between herself and that bed. The self, the part of her that is leaving, seems amorphous, shapeless. It is at once padding on noiseless feet across the floorboards and also floating somewhere up near the ceiling.
Is Alfonso really the monstrous figure Lucrezia makes him out to be? During their marriage we see him being courteous, respectful and solicitous of her health. True he does, occasionally, tell her to keep her nose out of affairs of state but this the 16th-century after all when all women are expected to do is look attractive, be graceful and produce children.
By manipulating the time frame and the point of view, O’ Farrell keeps us guessing whether Lucrezia’s fears are the product of an over-active imagination. Or whether the Duke is a master of hiding his true nature.
Lush world of the Renaissance
It’s a good yarn set in a Renaissance world that is richly imagined with detailed use of colour, texture and smell. Too rich unfortunately.
As much as I was fascinated by the story, I found the lushisness of O’Farrell’s prose overwhelming. One descriptive phrase never seems to suffice, we have to get it in triplicate. The tigress’ description is a case in point: The animal was orange, burnished gold, fire made flesh; she was power and anger, she was vicious and exquisite.” There are plenty more examples like that throughout the book.
We don’t so much read this book as wallow in it, overcome by layer upon layer of images, similies and descriptions. There were touches of this in her previous novel Hamnet but I didn’t feel it was as intrusive as it was in The Marriage Portrait.
Even if this didn’t have the same finesse and emotional heft as Hamnet, I still love Maggie O’Farrell as an author. Now that she has two works of historical fiction under her belt, I wonder whether this is going to be her chosen genre from now on.