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"The Marriage Portrait" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider

Updated: Sep 9, 2022

Eager to read a novel with exquisite plotting and richly drawn characters, related in a voice that’s detailed and atmospheric bringing Renaissance court to life? If you want sheer perfection in your historical fiction, put “The Marriage Portrait,” by Maggie O’Farrell, on top of your to-be-read-pile.

O’Farrell, whose last book “Hamnet” drew praise from readers and critics alike, has another instant bestseller on hand with her newest, based on the short life of Lucrezia de’Medici, daughter of Cosimo de/Medici, Duke of Florence, and his wife, Eleanor.

This marvelous story is particularly mesmerizing because Lucrezia died at age 16, in 1561, after being married to Alfonso II D’Este, Duke of Ferrara, for less than a year.

Theirs was an arranged marriage, as was the case with nobility, children advantageous because they could advance countries politically as they jimmied for power or peace. Lucrezia wasn’t supposed to be Alfonso’s bride, her older sister was, but when Maria died suddenly it was Lucrezia’s fate to wed Alfonso. Mystery shrouds her passing—some believe she died of natural causes, others tout the theory that Alfonso killed her.

The Alfonso in O’Farrell’s book is cruel and so eager for an heir as to render him heartless. He has a love/hate relationship with Lucrezia, initially gentle in his lovemaking, eager to compliment her on her long, burnished hair and gifting her with a white mule she adored. But when results of their coupling don’t prove successful, and pressure on the new ruler increases, Alfonso becomes churlish and verbally abusive, restricting Lucrezia’s freedoms and scorning her for her lively sprit, a quality that initially delighted him.

In alternating chapters, switching from Lucrezia’s birth and early years, to chapters on her final days, when her suspicions of her husband are paramount and her death imminent, O’Farrell weaves her beautifully rendered narrative. The novel’s construction does much to advance the action and illicit mounting empathy for a child bride who longs only to be outdoors in nature or painting pictures of little animals and birds she envisions. Though she tries to be a good wife and please Alfonso, to follow her mother’s tutelage, she ends up a prisoner held captive by an ogre.

Toward the end of her life, The Duke had Lucrezia’s portrait painted and was enthralled with the finished product, which he treasured, having always admired his wife’s beauty from the first time he saw her at age 10. After death he was keen in showing the painting off, as if owning Lucrezia even after her tragic passing.

Though readers may have no prior knowledge of Lucrezia, she’s been immortalized in Robert Barrett Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess” which centers on the painting, and capsulizes the storyline O’Farrell expounds on in her riveting book. “The Marriage Portrait” is an impassioned novel not to be missed, rendering readers eager to finish yet reticent to do so.

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