Lucrezia is the youngest daughter of Medicis of Florence. Raised in luxury but strictly watched over by her mother and father, her life as a young girl in the 1550s is dictated for her from birth. Yet there is a wildness to her, something untameable at her very core, that she carries with her. When Lucrezia’s oldest sister dies before her marriage, Lucrezia is chosen to step in and marry the duke of Ferrara. He is in his mid-twenties while Lucrezia is only fifteen. Her new husband is a mercurial character – humourous and funny one moment, dangerous and frightening the next. He is a mean searching for power and a means to stabilize his own position and he will not let anyone stand in the way of that, even his young bride.
She is no longer the person she has always been but someone else she doesn’t yet know, with a different name, a different home. She now belongs to this man standing before her.The Marriage Portrait, Maggie O’Farrell
Historically, Lucrezia is perhaps best known for being the duchess in Robert Browning’s poem, My Last Duchess”. What we know of Lucrezia is that she married young and died within less than two years. Her death was blamed on illness but from the very beginning there were rumours that her husband had murdered her.
O’Farrell sticks largely to the historical facts of what is known of the time and place but she brings these characters to life beautifully. Lucrezia is a wonderful heroine. She is curious and artistic – she loves to paint – and stubborn and naive. Although she lives a life of privilege for her time, she has almost no freedom and certainly none to make decisions about her own life. In her father’s home, her time is decided by her parents who aim to mold her to be a wife, to be wed to strengthen their own alliances. In her husband’s home, she ends up being even more like a prisoner. The duke, Alfonso, is in need of an heir to secure his tenuous position and so Lucrezia becomes more like a prize breeding mare than a human being. We get a hint of her fate early on when, as a child, Lucrezia learns of the story of Iphigenia:
Iphigenia walked blithely to what she thought was a marriage altar but turned out to be a sacrificial altar. Agamemnon slit her throat with a knife.
O’ Farrell keeps the tension at the fore throughout the story by interspersing Lucrezia’s childhood and introduction to marriage with the present tense where Alfonso has brought her to a remote hunting lodge and she believes he has poisoned her.
Alfonso himself is particularly well-drawn. In him, O’Farrell creates a multi-faceted villain. A product of his time, he is no more capable of seeing Lucrezia as an independent human being than he could view his horse as his equal. Yet at times he is kind to her. He takes care of her in many ways, he is capable of thinking of her wants and preferences. This makes it all the more terrifying when he turns so quickly on her. He is a man that allows no dissension and whose greatest fear is being perceived as weak. This makes it easy for him to be absolutely heartless and again O’Farrell does an excellent job at showing just how heartless Alfonso can be until both the reader and Lucrezia have no trouble believing he means to kill her.
As a whole, this book made me want to read more about Florence and Italy in the 16th century and I was lost down a rabbit trail of wikipedia articles about the Medicis for a while after I finished. Very strongly recommended!