Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
It is an exceptional ability in an author to be able to convincingly and seamlessly blend fact and fiction in order to produce books as brilliant as the late Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. Maggie O’Farrell, with her latest novel, The Marriage Portrait, has demonstrated that she too possesses this to a lesser degree. She has written a beautiful and heartbreaking account of the brief life of Lucrezia de Medici in sixteenth century Florence.
Cosimo and Eleanor, her parents, had six children. Maria, the eldest daughter, was engaged to be married to Alphonso, the Duke of Ferrara who contrived to marry into the rich and powerful Medici’s to enhance his family’s influence and fortunes. The dowry, historical records show, was equivalent to 50,000,000 pounds in today’s currency.
Maria dies before her wedding so Alphonso switches his attentions to Lucrezia. Reluctantly, she marries him, in the gown made for her dead sister – a bizarre touch. As is the custom, she leaves her family and the sheltered life of learning and culture within the Florentine palazzo and journeys to the delizia of the Duke of Ferraro. This is a fortified rambling style of country residence or villa.
Two years later she is dead at the age of seventeen.
Within that time frame, she inhabits a world of doubt, fear, hostility, anxiety and a kind of desperate hope.
Alphonso generates this with his frightening Jekyll and Hyde personality. Tall, handsome and with all the polish of an aristocrat of the era, he displays charm, kindness, and a seductive sensitivity. Unexpectedly, he can become cruel, ruthless, despotic and violent.
As is the custom, he commissions a group of artists to paint a portrait of his new wife, in a luxurious gown and bedecked with jewellery. This supposedly exists today, as well as a copy. One is in the Pitti Palace and the other in America in South Carolina.
It is believed that it is the inspiration of Robert Browning’s poem, ‘My Last Duchess’.
In one chilling scene between the newly married couple, Lucrezia,is introduced by her husband, as ‘my first Duchess’. She is THE Duchess. Does her husband plan others to follow? (In actual fact, there were two more. Both failed to produce an heir.) Comments such as these fuel poor Lucrezia’s conviction that, despite occasional protestations of love, her husband intends to murder her. Month after month she does not fall pregnant, resulting in both relief and terror. Alphonso, like many men possessing power and wealth, is obsessed with ensuring the family’s future and fortunes by having at least one surviving male child.
Maggie O’Farrell’s wonderful book is written in fine language that is poetic in its beauty and imagery. This brings Lucrezia’s tragic story to a vivid reality which in its detail contrasts sharply with our lives today. How much we are devoid of the elegance and unhurried pace of the wealthy in Italy four hundred years ago.
The present tense heightens its freshness and connects more closely to the reader. A past tense narrative creates distance and perhaps lessens its impact.
Stark contrast too, is the position of women, even those who were educated and privileged. They were at the whims and dictates of the male – be they father, husband or even brother.
Her previous success Hamnet was praised for its recreation of Shakespeare’s family life in Stratford, especially his beloved son. The Marriage Portrait depicts a picture of Renaissance Italy that glows like a painting by an Old Master.
Whereas cinema can bring to life eras of sumptuous splendour, a visual feast, Maggie O’Farrell’s story of a doomed young bride has a glorious depth. Her descriptions of the minutiae of daily life are both superb and unforgettable.
It is a book to be read more than once for this reason alone.
The Marriage Portrait
by Maggie O’Farrell
ISBN 978 147222 385 2