The Marriage Portrait

by Maggie O'Farrell

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The Marriage Portrait Summary

The Marriage Portrait is a 2022 historical novel by Maggie O’Farrell about Lucrezia, a young woman of the powerful Medici family in Renaissance Italy, and her marriage to Alfonso II, duke of Ferrara.

  • During her childhood, Lucrezia stands out from her sisters for her intelligence and impetuosity.
  • After her sister Maria dies, Lucrezia is forced to take Maria's place as Alfonso's bride. She settles into married life, but Alfonso’s brutality becomes more evident.
  • Frustrated by his inability to produce an heir, Alfonso grows more menacing, and Lucrezia takes her fate into her own hands.

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Last Updated on November 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1213

The Marriage Portrait is a historical novel by Maggie O’Farrell. It is based on the true story of the sixteenth-century duchess Lucrezia de’ Medici and consists of two interlinking timelines. One timeline is immediate and present-tense, focusing on the two-day timespan in which Lucrezia’s husband, Alfonso, attempts to poison Lucrezia, and the other is a history of Lucrezia’s life and marriage. The timeline of the poisoning is presented in interstitial chapters woven through the broader arc of Lucrezia’s life and has been italicized in this summary for clarity.

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Sixteen-year-old Lucrezia is sitting down to dinner with her husband of a year, Alfonso II d’Este, at a remote family hunting property Alfonso visited regularly in childhood. He has brought her here, he insists, to help her recover from her recent illness. Lucrezia is sure that he is lying and that he intends to kill her.

The narrative shifts to Lucrezia’s history, and she is introduced as the fifth child of the Duke and Duchess of Florence. Her mother, Eleonora, is so famous for her fertility that she is known as “La Fecundissima.” Unlike the other children, Lucrezia is disagreeable and bad-tempered and is sent to nurse with one of the cooks. When she finally returns to the nursery, she struggles to fit in with her siblings. She is smaller, quieter, and seemingly weaker than they are, and she is much more interested in animals than people. A skilled artist and a talented eavesdropper who delights in exploring the hidden passageways of the family palazzo, Lucrezia is perceptive and astute and loves to collect secrets. Her nurse, Sofia, is very protective of her.

Alfonso tries to convince Lucrezia to eat. She needs to regain her strength, he insists. Lucrezia cycles between anger, fear, and mirth as she considers the situation at hand. The two sit by the fire, and he cradles her to keep her warm. Briefly, she wonders if she might be mistaken about his intentions.

As Lucrezia’s older siblings grow up, they leave the nursery one by one to enter adulthood. Unsure what adulthood might mean for her, Lucrezia soon learns she won’t have much choice in her future. When Maria dies of an illness, Lucrezia is conscripted to replace her as the bride-to-be of Alfonso II d’Este, the future Duke of Ferrara. Though she doesn’t want to marry him, she is initially hopeful that he may be a favorable match. He displays a sense of humor and decorum that surprises her, and, despite her doubts, she enters the marriage with optimism.

A nauseated Lucrezia rolls out of bed and vomits profusely. She is surprised to see Emilia, her devoted maid, realizing that the girl has tricked an artist into secretly bringing her to the lodge with the promise of payment for the portrait of Lucrezia Alfonso has commissioned. She tells Emilia that she has been poisoned and that Emilia can’t reveal herself or she will be killed, too.

The newlyweds relocate to Ferrara. A young servant from Florence named Emilia introduces herself, telling Lucrezia that she will accompany her to Ferrara as her personal maid. They knew each other as children, Emilia reveals: Lucrezia was nursed by her mother, making them “milk-sisters.” Initially very pleased by her new environs, Lucrezia is unsettled when she is introduced to Leonello Baldassare, Alfonso’s friend and consigliere. Leonello hints that there is trouble in the Ferrarese court and that Alfonso has only married Lucrezia out of desperation for an heir.

Lucrezia hears horses down below and realizes the artist has arrived to deliver the portrait and request payment. This unintended disruption, she thinks, may afford her time to escape.

Lucrezia starts seeing glimpses of cruelty and volatility in Alfonso’s behavior. He doesn’t react when Leonello brutalizes a young servant boy, he threatens Lucrezia for questioning him, and he seems unconcerned at her physical pain during their attempts to conceive an heir. Grateful for a reprieve when he goes out of town for a few days, Lucrezia is startled to find a man unconscious in the hallway. Recalling that she has seen someone collapse like this before and be revived with honey, she tries the remedy. The man awakens just as his friend arrives. The man, she learns, is mute, but his name is Jacopo. His friend is Maurizio, and the two of them have come to make preliminary sketches for a portrait of the new duchess.

Lucrezia gets dressed and stumbles down the hallway to confront Alfonso.

Alfonso and Lucrezia leave the bucolic villa and go to the castello at Ferrara, where Lucrezia is introduced to Alfonso’s sisters. Elisabetta is gracious and welcoming, whereas Nunciata is skeptical and rude, but both eventually make an attempt to endear themselves to her. During a party one evening, Lucrezia notices something shocking: Elisabetta, flushed with excitement, has just exchanged notes with a common guardsman.

During a seating for her portrait, Lucrezia hears Jacopo mumble to himself and realizes that he isn’t mute—he simply speaks the Neapolitan dialect, uncommon in Ferrara. Sofia spoke the same one, so Lucrezia understands it, and so she and Jacopo have a brief conversation.

Lucrezia wakes one night to the sound of screaming and learns that Alfonso has discovered Elisabetta’s relationship with the guardsman. As a punishment, he orders the guardsman to be strangled in front of her. Lucrezia, terrified and desperate, writes to her mother to say she no longer feels safe with Alfonso. Her mother responds by telling her to focus on conceiving an heir.

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Lucrezia descends the staircase and finds a group of men convened around the portrait: Alfonso, Leonello Baldassare, the artist Il Bastianino, Jacopo, and Maurizio. Alfonso hides his surprise that Lucrezia lives, and the men retreat to the other room. Jacopo and Maurizio sneak back under the guise of retrieving the painting, telling Lucrezia that they can tell she is in trouble and will jam rags in the door of the servant’s entrance to disable the lock. Jacopo will wait outside for her after dark, he promises.

Lucrezia falls into a depressed stupor, and Alfonso becomes increasingly frustrated at their inability to conceive. Following a doctor’s orders, he removes all potential distractions from her room, cuts her hair to “cool” her down, and restricts her to her chambers. When this doesn’t work, he tells her another doctor has recommended they spend some time away, at his family’s hunting property.

The two narratives converge, and Lucrezia returns to her chambers as she hears the artists leave. Awaking several hours later, desperately hungry, she sneaks downstairs to the kitchen for something to eat. Recalling what Jacopo said about the door, she tests it and finds it open.

At the same moment, unbeknownst to Lucrezia, Alfonso and Leonello are creeping up the stairs to strangle her. It’s dark, and they think she is alone, so they fail to realize that they are strangling Emilia instead. Her body is found by a servant who has never met Lucrezia and thus does not recognize the discrepancy.

Emilia’s body is returned to Florence and interred as Lucrezia de’ Medici, and Lucrezia and Jacopo escape to Venice to build a new life.

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Chapter Summaries