Florence, the 1560s. Lucrezia, third daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici, is free to wander the palazzo at will, wondering at its treasures and observing its clandestine workings. But when her older sister dies on the eve of marriage to Alfonso d’Este, ruler of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, Lucrezia is thrust unwittingly into the limelight: the duke is quick to request her hand in marriage, and her father to accept on her behalf.
Having barely left girlhood, 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 husband himself, Alfonso. Is he the playful sophisticate her appears 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 uncomfortable finery for the painting which is 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 Ferrarese dynasty. Until then, for all of her rank and nobility, her future hangs entirely in the balance.
Set at the heart of the treacherous political world of the Italian Renaissance, Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait centres around a young woman’s tumultuous marriage to someone she is convinced will murder her.
O’Farrell has found her comfort zone with 16th century heroines. In The Marriage Portrait, she crafts a story around Lucrezia, who was the third child of Medici, ruler of Florence. Married off at age 13 to the Duke of Ferrara – Alfonso – she died not long after the wedding and was long thought to have been poisoned by her husband. In The Marriage Portrait, O’Farrell imagines a story around this historical saga, brining Lucrezia and Alfonso to life with a vivid tale.
“Lucrezia said nothing, just pulled a piece of parchment towards her. It was the only way to deal with Isabella’s fits of temper: ignore them, let them run their course. Securing the page with one hand, she held her pen poised. How to begin? Dearest Alfonso? Your excellency?”
Structurally, we first meet Lucrezia one year into her marriage. Failing to fall pregnant and give Alfonso an heir, she knows that he will murder her so that he can re-marry. The novel then moves back in time so we can understand how Lucrezia came to be in this situation.
The setup of the novel is beguiling and intriguing, and the latter third of the book builds in an enticing manner, but for most of the novel the pacing lacks and the tension never builds to where it needs to be. Perhaps the novel is too long. Perhaps too few characters cross our path and so we’re largely forced to read only about Lucrezia who grows a bit monotonous at certain points in the novel.
Truthfully, I wanted to love this novel but in reality, I had to force myself to continue.
“The plaits are arranged, criss-crossing her head, looping over hear ears and the jewels there, up the curve of her neck, and secured at the crown of her head. The veil is brought down around her while they affix the golden diadem, brought by Vitelli himself, from the iron-lined strongroom.”
One of the strengths of the novel does include O’Farrell’s description – rich and full, if at times a little too lavish and long. She revels in how she brings an author to a setting and an interaction; O’Farrell cannot be accused of stripping back her prose too much. At times though, her description boggles and slows down the pacing, traps its reader instead of keeping us propelled forward.
I wonder if there just wasn’t enough to the plotting to craft a faster paced story, and so Maggie had to fill the gaps with excessive prose that brought the novel to an unnecessary 440 pages.
“Except for little Lucrezia, tucked into a bed with both her sisters in a room under the eaves of the palazzo roof. Lucrezia of the solemn gaze and pale, wispy hair – incongruously so, for all her siblings had the sleek fox-dark colouring of their Spanish mamma.”
The Marriage Portrait is best suited to historical fiction readers, with a particular pursuit towards literary fiction. Readership skews 40+
Thank you to the publishing company for mailing me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
The Marriage Portrait
Hachette Book Publishers