A 16-year-old duchess, who lived a sheltered life, died in a remote villa after only being married to her husband, Alfonso Duke of Ferrera, for a mere year. Many suspect that she died of a fever, but there are rumors that her husband had her poisoned. Not much is known about Lucrezia de Medici, Duchess of Ferrara, except her marriage portrait and a brief mention of her in Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess.” Did she die of a fever, or was there a more sinister plot behind her demise? The mystery around her life and unexpected death have not been discussed much until now in Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel, “The Marriage Portrait.”
The last book I read by Maggie O’Farrell, “Hamnet,” was such an emotional ride for me, so when I heard that she would dive back into the 16th century with her latest novel, I was excited. I will admit that I had never heard the story of Lucrezia de Medici, so I was curious to see how O’Farrell would tell her tale.
We begin in the villa with Alfonso and Lucrezia, where Lucrezia feels uneasy and fearful for her life, but to understand why we must go back in time. We then jump to the past and Lucrezia’s childhood as the daughter of Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and his wife Eleanor of Toledo. Lucrezia’s youth should be filled with balls and glamor, but she is different than her siblings and is treated as almost an outcast in her own family. Her only solace is her maid Sofia, who acts more like her mother, and her love of the arts.
As a daughter of nobility, Lucrezia knows that she will have to marry a noble one day, but it comes sooner than expected when her eldest sister dies, and she is betrothed to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. Her marriage to Alfonso begins smoothly; Alfonso is loving and caring, allowing Lucrezia to pursue her passions and have the freedom she desires. He even allows for a portrait painted in her honor to show the world how regal his bride is and how much he loves her. However, as time passes, Alfonso’s more erratic side shows its ugly head, and Lucrezia sees how dangerous her husband can be to those who displease him.
I will admit that it took me a while to get used to how this particular book was structured, as O’Farrell jumps from the present to the past in every other chapter and presents Lucrezia’s story in a very artistic way. I am unsure if Lucrezia was an outcast in her family, but I believe she could have been an artist and viewed the world differently than her family. As for Lucrezia’s relationship with her husband Alfonso, I think it is plausible that he had a more erratic side to him, especially when it came to those who displeased him. Still, I am not sure that he was responsible for her death.
This novel was thought-provoking and engaging with an unlikely protagonist in Lucrezia de Medici. Even though you know she will die at the end, you will root for Lucrezia and hope that she can find even the slightest thread of happiness in her short life. I found this an utterly gripping novel, and I hope O’Farrell will write more stories set in 16th-century Italy. If you want a thrilling book about a young noblewoman living during the Italian Renaissance, “The Marriage Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell should be at the top of your to-be-read list.