For the last few days I have been lost in renaissance Italy through the pages of this wonderful book. The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell shows us the political machinations of the Italian aristocracy and Lucrezia, the young girl at the heart of it. I was vaguely aware of Lucrezia from Robert Browning’s poem, My Last Duchess, which my daughter studied recently. In the poem, Lucrezia’s husband ponders on his late wife and there are hints that he had her killed. In this novel, we find out much more about Lucrezia and her marriage through the wonderful prose of Maggie O’Farrell.
I had a real fangirl moment just yesterday when I was out for a walk near me and who was walking towards me but Maggie O’Farrell herself. I decided I just had to tell her how much I enjoyed the book and she was kind enough to stop for a few moments while I spoke gibberish to her!
About the book
The Marriage Portrait is a dazzling evocation of the Italian Renaissance in all its beauty and brutality.
Winter, 1561. Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara, is taken on an unexpected visit to a country villa by her husband, Alfonso. As they sit down to dinner it occurs to Lucrezia that Alfonso has a sinister purpose in bringing her here. He intends to kill her.
Lucrezia is sixteen years old, and has led a sheltered life locked away inside Florence’s grandest palazzo. Here, in this remote villa, she is entirely at the mercy of her increasingly erratic husband.
What is Lucrezia to do with this sudden knowledge? What chance does she have against Alfonso, ruler of a province, and a trained soldier? How can she ensure her survival.
The Marriage Portrait is an unforgettable reimagining of the life of a young woman whose proximity to power places her in mortal danger.
The world building in this novel is incredible. Maggie O’Farrell brings Florence and Ferrara vibrantly to life. You can easily visualise the colourful surroundings, the heat of Italy, the violence of the storms, the textures of the fabrics, sounds echoing through the palaces, even the smells emanating from the kitchens. This attention to minute detail makes it easy to visualise the world Lucrezia inhabits.
Lucrezia is a talented artist, painting miniatures of scenery, animals and people. Often she paints over previous work, creating hidden layers of paintings. In a similar way, there are many layers to the book, and many things about herself which Lucrezia must keep hidden away beneath a façade. The story moves back and forward in Lucrezia’s life and builds up her story like the layers of a painting. We see her as a young girl, as someone promised in marriage against her will, through the early days of her marriage to its final days.
Maggie O’Farrell builds a clear picture of this young girl. She is a possession, a political pawn, her marriage a convenient political alliance. She has no agency, no say, no opinions allowed which are contrary to those of her husband who is shown to be a cold and cruel man. She is utterly at the mercy of the men in her life. And yet she is full of spirit and courage, not someone who will be easily disregarded or made to bend to her husband’s will.
Maggie O’Farrell is an exceptional storyteller in my opinion and had me utterly gripped by her beautiful writing throughout The Marriage Portrait. It may be partly about the marriage portrait of Lucrezia which Alfonso commissions, but it’s equally a portrait of their marriage. This is a stunning piece of historical fiction and easily earns a place in my top reads of this year.
Do take time to read the fascinating author’s note at the end where Maggie O’Farrell talks about the facts she used in the novel and explains the variations from what is known about the real Lucrezia.
My grateful thanks to the publishers Tinder Press for approving my request to read The Marriage Portrait through Netgalley. It will be published in ebook, audiobook and hardback on 30th August.
About the Author
Maggie O’Farrell, FRSOL, is the author of HAMNET, Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020, and the memoir I AM, I AM, I AM, both Sunday Times no. 1 bestsellers. Her novels include AFTER YOU’D GONE, MY LOVER’S LOVER, THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US, which won a Somerset Maugham Award, THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX, THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE, which won the 2010 Costa Novel Award, INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE and THIS MUST BE THE PLACE. She is also the author of WHERE SNOW ANGELS GO, a novel for children. She lives in Edinburgh.