The Marriage Portrait

by Maggie O'Farrell

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The Marriage Portrait of Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara–A Presence Malign and Predatory Summary

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Last Updated on November 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 764

The Marriage Portrait of Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara

In the present, Lucrezia stumbles down the staircase at the hunting lodge and heads for the dining hall. She sees Il Bastianino, Alfonso, Maurizio, Jacopo, and Baldassare, and in seeing their reaction to her realizes how sick she must now look. Concealing his surprise at her emergence, Alfonso suggests to the room that she should see a physician. Lucrezia deflects, asserting that she has recovered.

Alfonso, unflappable, insists that they see the portrait. Il Bastianino reveals it, and it is stunning. Given the level of detail, the way in which it captures her in her entirety, and the presence of a paintbrush in her painted hand, it is clear to Lucrezia that this portrait was painted entirely by Jacopo—by the one man who truly sees her.

The men leave the room to discuss payment, and Lucrezia collapses into a chair in the hallway. She is surprised by footsteps and finds that Jacopo and Maurizio have come to find her. “You are in danger,” Jacopo asserts as Maurizio calls to the other men that they are bringing the portrait and will be right back. They will stuff rags in the lock of the servant’s entrance to disable the lock, they tell her, and come back for her at nightfall. He touches her on the shoulder as he says this, and Lucrezia feels a charge pass between them. She cannot stay here, he tells her, imploring her to meet them later.

A Presence Malign and Predatory

After receiving her mother’s letter at the castello, Lucrezia falls into a stupor. She is haunted by the specter of maternity, both that it may and may not come, and struggles to make sense of her new reality. 

Alfonso returns early and unexpectedly and wakes Lucrezia from her slumber without warning. He hears she has been sick, he tells her, so he has brought a physician to look at her. He is smiling as he says this, and Lucrezia realizes he thinks she is pregnant.

The surgeon examines her, eventually reporting to Alfonso that she is unlikely to be pregnant but that her spirits are low. Her spirits, Alfonso retorts, do not concern him. Asking the doctor to step outside, the two men begin to argue. Lucrezia listens through the door, and hears the doctor giving Alfonso directions to increase their chances at conception. Alfonso interrupts, asking if the doctor thinks there is something inherently wrong with Lucrezia. He suspects, he tells the doctor, that Lucrezia defiantly resists pregnancy somehow, through sheer force of will.

The doctor eventually suggests a strict pattern: they must attempt to conceive exactly once every five days, and in between Lucrezia must attend confession. Additionally, he tells Alfonso, her hair must be cut. It’s too red, too fiery, and serves to overheat her tempers. This will help cool her down, he promises, which will increase their chance at conception.

Servants arrive to “cool” down Lucrezia, which includes not just a haircut but also the removal of all things “warm” from her chambers—all her art, her collections, her supplies, her books. A despondent Lucrezia tries to save her treasures but is restrained by a pair of guards. 

Emilia hangs new art, innocuous, fruitful, serene paintings of fruit and Bible scenes. Then, she brings long, sharp scissors. Lucrezia refuses to allow anyone else to cut her hair, insisting that the only way it gets done is if she does it herself. With Emilia’s help, she locates a suitable length just below her shoulder and chops it all off. Emilia begins to gather the hair, insisting that they can pin it back in when they style it, but Nunciata interrupts. Alfonso, she says, expects the hair to be given to him. Lucrezia, revolted, wants to snatch it back, hating the thought of part of her being taken away and given to him.

Alfonso continues to visit her every five days, now much more cordial than he is loving, and the two pray the rosary together before attempting to conceive. She begins to attend the chapel regularly, one of the few activities for which she is allowed outside her rooms. Despite this diligent routine, the couple still fails to conceive. Under these oppressive conditions, Lucrezia struggles to maintain her sanity, inventing games and experiments for herself to pass the time.

Skeptical of the efficacy of this regimen after continued failure, Alfonso tells Lucrezia he has spoken to another doctor. This one, he tells her, suggests some time away in the country for both of them.

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