The Marriage Portrait

by Maggie O'Farrell

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Man Asleep, Ruler at Rest Summary

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Last Updated on November 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788

Exhausted after multiple feasts, multiple dress changes, and interminable wedding festivities, Lucrezia finally sits in a carriage waiting to leave Florence. She has said goodbye to her family but is upset that she has had no opportunity to say goodbye to Sofia. 

Alfonso arrives at the carriage, and the two ready themselves to leave. With pleasure, she notes that he says “please” in his address to one of the servants. She has never heard either of her parents use that word with the staff. Getting in, he hands her a parcel of food, noting that she didn’t eat much the day before.

As they prepare to depart, a tearful Sofia bursts in through the carriage door and gives Lucrezia a hug and a proper goodbye. When the nurse leaves, Lucrezia realizes Sofia just spoke to her in the Neapolitan dialect she uses with the other nurses, revealing that she knew Lucrezia could understand it all along. The carriage finally leaves, and Lucrezia is soon lulled to sleep. 

Some time later, she awakes to find that the carriage has stopped and Alfonso is gone. Leaving the carriage, she finds guards who speak only Ferrarese. They are supposed to transfer to horseback, she recalls, as the carriage will return to Florence, but Alfonso is nowhere to be seen, and she can’t find anybody who speaks Tuscan to ask.

Eventually, she finds the young servant who was so tender with her during wedding preparations. She is meant to accompany her as a maidservant, the girl, named Emilia, tells her. Tentatively, she also reports that Alfonso has left. He received a letter that seemed to have angered him, she explains, and left to attend to something. Lucrezia, affronted by her abandonment, recalls a rumor she heard about discontent between the Ferrarese court and Alfonso’s mother, a Protestant, who was once exiled.

With Emilia and the Ferrarese guards, Lucrezia continues on horseback. The journey is exhausting, cold, and ominous at times, but finally they arrive at an archway bustling with servants holding torches. Arriving in Lucrezia’s new chambers, both girls are surprised and amused to see what they think is a giant cage. Upon closer inspection, they realize it’s a large bed with curtains.

Lucrezia sleeps for hours, and a busy morning passes at the villa without her presence. Eventually, Alfonso enters the room and sits beside her on the bed. She starts to address him formally, but he tells her to call him by his first name. All those who love him do, he continues, and he hopes that that includes her now, too. 

Anxious that Alfonso is here to consummate the marriage, Lucrezia is relieved when he says they can wait until later. She is so beautiful, he tells her, they will have to have her portrait painted. The prior painting of her, he insists, is woefully inadequate.

He tells her to go wherever she pleases, that the villa is hers to enjoy, and she realizes she has never before known this freedom. Alfonso accompanies her as she sets out for her first walk around the grounds, but she soon becomes distracted by a man who appears with a sheaf of papers. Though the man is not a nobleman, Lucrezia notices, he doesn’t appear to be deferential to Alfonso, and Alfonso doesn’t appear to expect him to be.

Eventually, Alfonso introduces him to Lucrezia: he is Leonello, Alfonso’s oldest friend and consigliere. Leonello, Lucrezia notices with dismay and confusion, does not appear to like her very much.

Later that evening, Alfonso comes to Lucrezia’s chambers to consummate their marriage. She is nervous and unsure what to expect and is surprised that Alfonso undresses so readily in front of her. He notices her nervousness and tells her she has nothing to be afraid of but soon discovers she finds the act of copulation physically painful and emotionally appalling. He falls asleep beside her, and she stares at him as if considering a portrait. This is the first time, she realizes, that she has been able to look at him for a prolonged period of time. She is struck by the notion that the man beside her is one of many aspects of Alfonso all living inside the same body, some of them contradicting one another.

Sneaking out for some fresh air, Lucrezia encounters Leonello Baldassare. The two have a tense interaction, and he hints at the division within Alfonso’s family and his concern over securing the dynasty. This, he implies, is why Alfonso was so keen to marry the daughter of the famous La Fecundissima of Florence. Lucrezia, upset and unsettled by Leonello’s clear dislike of her, returns to the house.

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