A Medici princess rebels against her gilded cage

Seeking agency over her life, a Medici bride plots to escape a loveless, and possibly lethal, union in “The Marriage Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell. 

"The Marriage Portrait," by Maggie O'Farrell, Knopf, 253 pp.

Robert Browning’s oft-recited 1842 poem “My Last Duchess” begins, “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive.” Irish-born writer Maggie O’Farrell brings that young woman back to pulsating life in her captivating new historical novel, “The Marriage Portrait.”

Browning’s speaker, believed to be based on Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, paints a chilling picture of the dynamics of his relationship with his 16-year-old first wife, Lucrezia di Cosimo de’Medici. She died under mysterious circumstances in 1561, less than a year into their marriage. In the midst of arranging a new betrothal, the duke in Browning’s poem hints at the cause of Lucrezia’s demise with his declaration of invincibility: “I choose / Never to stoop.”      

This sinister situation forms the kernel of O’Farrell’s tale of nefarious scheming, set in a society in which “high-born” girls were raised to unite dynasties in marriage and accede to the will of their fathers and husbands. Out of this, she has crafted a heart-pounding, atmospheric account of a powerless young woman’s cunning in the face of subjection and tyranny. “Some vital part of her will not bend, will never yield,” O’Farrell writes.  

Lucrezia joins a long line of strong, non-conformist women who populate O’Farrell’s intricately plotted, lyrically written novels – and her 2017 memoir, “I Am, I Am, I Am,” about her own harrowing encounters. Her forte has long been what she dubs here “a presence malign and predatory,” but the darkness is alleviated by her affinity for heroines who rise above even the most trying circumstances.

Like her 2020 novel, “Hamnet,” O’Farrell’s heartbreaking drama about how the loss of their 11-year-old son to the bubonic plague in 1596 affected Shakespeare, his wife, and literary history, “The Marriage Plot” is an emotionally intense read, lushly draped in atmospheric details. Both novels expand upon scant factual records, and both zigzag back and forth through time as they build inexorably towards an untimely death. 

But where “Hamnet” captured the relentless daily toil of running a household in Elizabethan England and the wages of grief on a marriage, “The Marriage Portrait” immerses us in the lavish yet stultifying 16th-century court life of Florence and Ferrara, in which girls were groomed for a less menial sort of subservience.  

Lucrezia, the spirited young Renaissance duchess at the heart of O’Farrell’s ninth novel, is a challenging child from birth – strong-willed, curious, artistically gifted, pushing boundaries in the fortress-like castellos that are “edifice[s] of power” and “as oppressive as a prison.” As a girl, she sneaks into the subterranean labyrinth of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence to catch a glimpse of her father’s exotic menagerie, including a beautiful striped tigress. Young Lucrezia identifies with the caged feline, who, she observes, “Carried on her body the barred marks of a prison, as if she had been branded for exactly this, as if captivity had been her destiny all along.” 

O’Farrell writes with a dramatic fervor that can border on the overwrought – but it grows on you as it feeds a mounting sense of dread. She evokes the suffocating anxiety of Lucrezia’s wedding day, encased in “a fortress of silk,” and offers a minutely observed description of her first fraught night with Alfonso. Over time, Lucrezia becomes adept at “unhitching herself from what is happening in this room, allowing her mind to roam. She becomes other and elsewhere … leaving just her skin and bone behind, in her stead.”  

Alfonso, initially courteous if uncaring, morphs into a cold-blooded monster frustrated by her essential un-biddability and his inability to secure his sovereignty with an heir, a failing he wrongly blames on his wife. Lucrezia cleverly does her best to stay one step ahead of him and his brutal adviser and henchman, Leonello Baldassare. Without giving away too much of O’Farrell’s deft plot twists, I can say that key to Lucrezia’s character – and her efforts at survival – are her close attachments to, and lessons gleaned from, the down-to-earth Neapolitan servants who raised her, including her nanny, wet-nurse, and personal maid.   

Although the titular marriage portrait commissioned by Alfonso is a product of O’Farrell’s rich imagination, it is a radiant presence at the center of this book. It also underscores the idea that hidden depths lie beneath the surface of much that meets the eye, and that beauty and human connections can be found in unexpected places. Lucrezia, an avid painter, is particularly fond of creating layered works of art in which images of herself are concealed in underpaintings.

When the commissioned portrait is unveiled, Lucrezia is shocked at how the painter has “excavate[d] that which she keeps hidden inside her” – including her look of “frankness close to defiance” – beneath the jewels and richly embroidered gown that mark her status. The portrait, she realizes, is “at once scaldingly public and deeply private,” down to the fact that, in lieu of the languid hands common to most formal portraits, she is shown clutching a paintbrush, “a hand with a purpose, a hand filled with intent.”  

“The Marriage Portrait” is similarly filled with intent. O’Farrell’s latest masterpiece presents a sumptuous portrait of a woman’s purposeful determination to break the bars of her gilded cage. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to A Medici princess rebels against her gilded cage
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today