The Marriage Portrait

by Maggie O'Farrell

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A Curving Meander of the River–With Her Head Held High Summary

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Last Updated on November 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1124

A Curving Meander of the River

In the present, Lucrezia, still nauseated, attempts to get up from her bed in her chambers at the hunting lodge, but Emilia stops her. Lucrezia insists on writing a letter to request help, and Emilia brings her supplies, but both women know there is no way to send it.

Hearing horses down below and an opening drawbridge, Lucrezia asks Emilia who could be calling. It’s the artist Il Bastianino, Emilia tells her, seeking payment for her portrait. Asking how she knows this, Lucrezia is surprised to learn that the maidservant had eavesdropped on Baldassare and then told Il Bastianino she would tell him where to go if he brought her here, too.

This surprise visit, Lucrezia realizes, may be the small delay that saves her life. To Emilia’s surprise, she asks to get dressed.

Honey Water

Settling into married life at the villa, Lucrezia is surprised by just how much freedom she is allowed. She can walk, paint, explore, or nap at her leisure, and Alfonso, busy with his court responsibilities, comes and goes. Her life is generally agreeable, but occasional dark moments show through.

During one otherwise warm and festive dinner, Alfonso leaves partway through the meal to respond to a secretary, returning much later very sullen and angry. Eager to lighten his mood, Lucrezia asks if a family matter is causing him concern. Upset by the question, he asks what she could possibly know of his family—and who told her of any family issues. Worried to implicate anybody in his burgeoning ire, Lucrezia deflects. These matters do not, Alfonso insists firmly, fall into a wife’s purview, and she is not to ask about them again.

Though Lucrezia’s days are at her leisure, she finds her nights abhorrent—Alfonso visits her chambers regularly in his attempts to conceive an heir, and Lucrezia’s distaste for sex never wanes. She never comes to enjoy it, at best learning only to fear it less through careful pain alleviation techniques. Thinking of her mother’s constantly shrinking and growing body, she wonders when she, too, may become pregnant and whether Alfonso ever wonders if pregnancy might kill her.

As Emilia dresses her one morning in preparation for a surprise that Alfonso has promised, Lucrezia notices that she and Emilia look somewhat alike. They knew each other when they were young, Emilia confides, telling Lucrezia that they had been milk-sisters when Lucrezia was born. Emilia’s mother had been Lucrezia’s wetnurse, and Emilia had been scarred in the kitchen accident that eventually led to Lucrezia’s being returned to the nursery. She also shares a rumor of trouble in the Ferrarese court: Alfonso’s mother, the formerly exiled protestant, is planning to leave and take Alfonso’s sisters with her to consolidate power elsewhere. He has, Emilia tells her, threatened to punish them severely for this impudence.

Lucrezia arrives on the loggia to meet Alfonso, who is embroiled in a tense conversation with Leonello, but he steps away from his friend as soon as she arrives. Eager to give Lucrezia her present and with no mention of the family upset, he takes her downstairs and presents a rare and perfectly white mule. He lifts her astride the mule and walks them around the field, promising that she will be stabled with the horses and that Lucrezia can ride her whenever she wants. He has to go to the castello in Ferrara for a day or two, he tells her, but he will send for her to join him very soon. And soon, he promises, they will begin work on her new portrait.

As they chat, noise erupts from the villa, and Lucrezia watches Leonello harshly beat a young servant who has dropped something he was carrying. Upset, Lucrezia yells at him to stop. Alfonso, though, does nothing, leading the mule away from the scene with Lucrezia in tow. She asks him about the cruelty she has just witnessed and is met with an unnerving response: to question Baldassare, he tells her, is to question Alfonso himself, and that is unacceptable.

When Alfonso leaves for the castello, Lucrezia asks after the serving boy and learns that he has a broken nose and several cracked teeth. She covertly arranges for him to receive medicine and food to help him recover.

Enjoying her freedom while he is away, Lucrezia works on a painting. She will paint what she wants underneath and then conceal it with something considered proper, she thinks, just as she learned back at the palazzo in Florence. But before she can start on the overpainting, she hears a loud thud in the hallway and goes out to investigate.

In her painting smock, she arrives to find a man unconscious on the ground. Recalling a similar moment she witnessed once in her youth, she brings the man honey water to revive him. Feeding it to him and ordering him to stay alive, she is relieved when he stirs and recovers.

Another young man enters, realizing what has just happened, and thanks her for saving his friend’s life. The second man introduces himself as Maurizio and his recovering friend as Jacopo, who is mute. They are assistants to the artist Il Bastianino and are here to make preliminary sketches of the new duchess. 

Realizing they think she is a servant, Lucrezia declines to correct them and instead uses the opportunity to gather information. They have heard that the duchess is a beauty but that her husband has two faces. “Like Janus,” Maurizio quips.

Alfonso returns, and Lucrezia begrudgingly readjusts to life as his wife after her few days of independence. Before she can catch her misstep, she asks if his family matter was resolved to his satisfaction. “You seem remarkably well-informed,” he tells her ominously.

Seating her for the preliminary sketches, Alfonso invites the artist’s two assistants in. Agog to realize the girl in the paint-covered smock was actually the duchess herself, the two young men struggle to hide their shock as they complete the early sketches. Lucrezia sits still for two days, moving only her eyes, as Alfonso steers the artists towards his vision for the painting. 

After the sittings conclude, a sudden storm delays their departure from the villa. When Alfonso becomes enraged at Lucrezia for standing at an open window to watch instead of shutting it for shelter, she realizes with dismay that she knows only one way to calm him reliably: to initiate sex.

With Her Head Held High

In the present, mustering her strength and her anger in tandem, Lucrezia gets dressed and starts to make her way through the halls of the hunting lodge to confront her murderous husband.

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