The Marriage Portrait

by Maggie O'Farrell

Start Free Trial

The Underpainting and the Overpainting Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on November 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 691

In the present, Lucrezia wanders through the hunting lodge, listening to Alfonso and Leonello say goodbye to the painters. Reentering her chambers, Emilia insists that Lucrezia try to get some sleep. Lucrezia, distracted, refuses, and focuses instead on a drawing. She rejects the previous night’s sketches, focusing instead on something new: an animal, surrounded by vegetation. It’s a tiger, she tells Emilia. It was to be the center of a triptych, but she will no longer be able to finish it.

Emilia tries to undress Lucrezia, who is despondent and increasingly angry. Emilia insists that she must just be tired, and Lucrezia reasserts that she has been poisoned. Eventually, despite her protestations, she acquiesces to Emilia and falls asleep. 

She wakes hours later with a newfound clarity, newly certain about what Alfonso is capable of. If she doesn’t die tonight, she realizes, he will find another way to do it soon. If he does not do it himself, he will send Baldassare or another confidant to do it for him.

Rising from the bed where Emilia still sleeps, Lucrezia is struck by a sudden, desperate hunger. Sure that she can’t clear her head enough to make a plan without eating something, she decides to sneak out and find food before anybody else wakes up. As she leaves, she is struck by the odd notion that there are two Lucrezias now—one sneaking out to find food, and another still in bed, begging her to stay still where she is safe.

Padding delicately through the hallway, she hears footsteps from the hall. She flattens herself against the wall, hiding just out of view, and Baldassare comes within arm’s reach of her. Afraid to breathe, she wills him to keep going. To her relief, he continues on the other way, and she goes unnoticed.

En route to the kitchen, Lucrezia stops to consider the portrait. What will happen to it, she wonders, when she dies? Will her murderous husband hang it as though in mourning? Will he find it unbearable? She reaches the kitchen, and is jolted back to her memory of Jacopo and his naivety. His plan to defeat the security of this fortezza with something as simple as painter’s rags would never work; he could never understand the security precautions taken by a man like Alfonso. 

Still, Lucrezia reasons, she should try the door, just in case Jacopo has succeeded in unlocking it.  She stops to inspect the door, realizing that it has, in fact, worked as Jacopo intended. Marveling at the simplicity of this gambit—that a simple cloth rag could defeat a strong iron lock—she swings the door toward herself. Lucrezia, clutching a loaf of bread, stares out at freedom and wonders if she is about to be discovered.

Unbeknownst to Lucrezia, her discovery is unlikely, because at the same moment she breaches the kitchen door, Baldassare and Alfonso are creeping up the stairs to her chambers. It is dark, but together they descend on the sleeping figure in the bed. She fights back, but the two men strangle her and leave.

A remarkable series of coincidences follows: a kitchen servant discovers the body in the bed, and calls for help. Though none of the servants who come to her aid have set sights on the duchess before, they can all tell that she used to be beautiful, even after being battered by the seizure that they assume must have killed her. When inspectors arrive from the Florentine court to investigate the purported accident, the body has become bloated and decayed enough to conceal its true identity. A casket bearing the purported remains of Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara, is returned to Florence and interred in the family tomb.

Closing the door to the kitchen, Lucrezia hops down off the ledge and heads into the woods. Jacopo will be waiting, she hopes, just as he said he would fix the door. Together, they will flee on backroads towards new lives in a city with canals where the streets should be. And her work—small paintings, sometimes hiding under other paintings—will be beloved.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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