From a Google Image Search – Amazon
Maggie O’Farrell, of Hamnet fame, gives us a look at sixteenth century Italy, divided into various small Duchies, in her newest book, The Marriage Portrait. Her great talent is to bring eras and famous figures alive, much like the painting of her main character in this novel. She describes a restless young woman raised in a loving family who must leave her home to marry a young handsome man from Ferrara, a place across the mountains. It is fortunate that Lucrezia was not a biddable child, because the family she marries into is modeled on the De Medici family. Is it the fault of her beautiful mother whose mind wandered while her husband took his pleasure in the map room?
“Picture Eleonora in the autumn of 1544: she is in the map room of the Florentine palazzo, a chart held close to her face (she is somewhat short-sighted but would never admit this to anyone). Her women stand at a distance, as near to the window as they can get; although it is September, the city is still suffocatingly hot. The well of the courtyard below seems to bake in the air, wafting out more and more heat from the stone rectangle. The sky is low and motionless; no breeze stirs the silk window coverings and the flags on the palazzo’s ramparts hang limp and flaccid…Eleanora’s eyes rake over the silverpoint rendering of Tuscany: the peaks of hills, the eel-like slither of rivers, the ragged coastline climbing north. Her gaze pauses over the cluster of roads that knot themselves together for the cities of Siena, Livorno, and Pisa. Eleanor is a woman all too aware of her rarity and worth: she possesses not only a body able to produce a string of heirs, but also a beautiful face, with a forehead like carved ivory, eyes wide-set and deep brown, a mouth that looks well in both a smile and a pout. On top of all that she has a quick and mercurial mind. She can look at the scratch marks on this map and can, unlike most women, translate them into fields full of grain, terraces of vines, crops, farms, convents, levy-paying tenants.” (pg. 16)
Lucrezia is a painter. Painting techniques of sixteenth century artists play a big role in this story. The art of the underpainting is used by the painter of the time to record disparate truths; and it is used as a nice piece of symbolism by O’Farrell.
Lucrezia leaves Tuscany with her new husband and soon learns that he is not always the sanguine whimsical partner that he has pretended to be. He is desperate for an heir and Lucrezia’s mother is called by many La Fecundissima. She soon sees that her husband has two faces, and one is neither patient nor loving. When women did not produce children in the sixteenth century it was never the fault of the man. Lucrezia is not with child after nearly a year of marriage. Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, her husband, takes her to a hunting lodge at the edge of a forest to have her marriage portrait painted. A kind act based on a piece of acquired knowledge may have a profound effect on Lucrezia’s fate.
“Lucrezia is taking her seat at the long dining table, which is polished to a watery gleam and spread with dishes, inverted cups, a woven circlet of fir. Her husband is sitting down, not in his customary place at the opposite end but next to her, close enough that she could rest her head on his shoulder, should she wish; he is unfolding his napkin and straightening his knife and moving the candle towards them both when it comes to her with a peculiar clarity, as if some coloured glass has been put in front of her eyes, or perhaps removed them, that he intends to kill her.” (pg. 12)
Obviously, the rest of the story is told in flashback, a common element of story structure these days. The contrast between the lovebirds in Tuscany and the darker stuff of Ferrara gives scope to O’Farrell’s descriptive talents and offers a sense of real drama. I found the ending both satisfying and shocking, but I cannot tell you why without giving the outcome away. This quick read is also immersive, a way to spend a day half in light and half in shadow.