The Marriage Portrait

by Maggie O'Farrell

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A Wild and Lonely Place–The First Tiger in Tuscany Summary

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Last Updated on November 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901

A Wild and Lonely Place

The year is 1561, and sixteen-year-old Duchess Lucrezia is taking a seat at the dining table in a remote hunting lodge. Her husband, Alfonso II d’Este, is the recently crowned Duke of Ferrara. He has organized the trip with grand promises of rest and relaxation after Lucrezia’s recent illness, but the young duchess is certain he intends to kill her. As the two have their meal, and as Alfonso orates as though nothing is amiss, Lucrezia’s dread and curiosity compound in tandem.

The Unfortunate Circumstances of Lucrezia’s Conception

Eleonora, Lucrezia’s mother, is a smart, driven, organized woman who runs her house on a rigid schedule and with high expectations. Her relationship with Cosimo, Lucrezia’s father, is a uniquely equitable partnership for the era: though he is the Grand Duke, they run the province of Florence together. She bears many children to solidify their dynasty, and her first four pregnancies are effortless enough that she gains the epithet “La Fecundissima” among the Florentine people.

Lucrezia is her fifth pregnancy and by far her most complicated. A superstitious woman, Eleonora comes to believe that her lack of focus during Lucrezia’s conception is to blame for the difficulty. Instead of thinking pure thoughts about the moment at hand, she was looking over Cosimo’s shoulders at maps of the province’s untamed wilderness.

When Lucrezia is born, she is as wild and bad-tempered as her siblings are serene. Desperate for some peace and worried the child’s behavior will influence the others, Eleanora sends Lucrezia to nurse with one of the cooks. Sofia, Eleonora’s old family nurse, objects.

Separated from her siblings, the young Lucrezia becomes accustomed to the warmth of the kitchen, the life of the cooks and servants, and her “milk-mother” and “milk-sister”—that is, her wetnurse and her wetnurse’s daughter, both of whom she bonds with strongly. When she is old enough to walk and is nearly injured in an accident with some boiling water, she is sent back upstairs to live with her siblings.

To those upstairs, it is clear that the toddler Lucrezia is substantially different from the other children. She cries for her milk-mother and milk-sister, refusing the embrace of the upstairs nurses and eating only when food is placed on the floor. Eleonora, pregnant yet again, resolves to avoid another Lucrezia and refocuses her thoughts on strong, healthy children and domestic matters.

To Eleonora’s dismay, Lucrezia’s disobedience persists as she gets older. Her reflections on her daughter’s behavior culminate in a memory of Lucrezia at fifteen, just before her wedding. Lucrezia, in tears, insists that she can’t wear the wedding dress she’s been given. It’s too big, she cries, and she especially doesn’t want to wear a dress made for Maria, her sister, who has died.

The First Tiger in Tuscany

When a foreign dignitary gives Cosimo a painting of a tiger, he becomes fixated on adding one to his menagerie. He tasks Vitelli, his consigliere ducale, with bringing one to Florence for display in his prized Sala dei Leoni—his room of lions.

Rumors of the tiger’s arrival travel through the estate. Lucrezia, small and quiet and already adept at creeping around after dark and eavesdropping at just seven years old, is titillated by the news. She hears some updates by sneaking through the palazzo’s passageways and corridors undetected and listening to conversations. Others she gleans when Sofia and the other nurses speak to each other in a Neapolitan dialect they think she can’t understand.

When the tiger finally arrives at the Palazzo, Lucrezia senses its presence immediately and becomes fixated. As she and her siblings eat breakfast that morning, she loses herself in thought and is snapped unceremoniously back to reality when her sister Maria tells her she was growling.

When the children’s antiquities tutor arrives, Lucrezia correctly answers all the questions he poses to the older siblings despite not yet being allowed to participate in their lessons. Troubled by the brutal imagery of the myth in question, Lucrezia develops a sharp headache with colorful visions. Maria tells the tutor to ignore her and that their mother says Lucrezia displays such behavior for attention.

Cosimo steps into the room to observe the lessons, and Lucrezia feels the stakes of the lesson suddenly heighten. He has a tiger now, she realizes, and maybe he’ll let them see it. Nudging her siblings to request a viewing if they complete their lesson to his satisfaction, she helps them cheat to earn the reward.

That evening, Cosimo walks the children to the Sala dei Leoni. The tiger is present but hiding far enough back in the darkness of her cage that Cosimo eventually takes the children to see the lions instead. Lucrezia, transfixed, steals quietly back to the tiger’s cage and wills her out into the light. When the tiger finally emerges, Lucrezia finds her gaze incendiary and is sure that the two of them are communicating with mutual admiration. Sticking her arm through the bars of the cage, she pets the tiger and becomes lost in the connection between them.

Suddenly, Cosimo and Maria notice Lucrezia’s actions, and Lucrezia is injured by the iron bars as she’s snatched away from her new feline friend and dragged back to the nursery.

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