The Marriage Portrait

by Maggie O'Farrell

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The Marriage Portrait Characters

The main characters in The Marriage Portrait are Lucrezia de’ Medici, Alfonso II d’Este, and Emilia.

  • Lucrezia de’ Medici is the youngest daughter of the powerful Medici family of Florence. Intelligent, introspective, and creative, Lucrezia chafes against the strict social boundaries placed around her.
  • Alfonso II d’Este is the duke of Ferrara and the eventual husband of Lucrezia. Initially charming, he proves himself to be brutal and self-serving.
  • Emilia is Lucrezia’s loyal maid. Emilia and Lucrezia have a close, sisterly bond, because Lucrezia nursed with Emilia’s mother as a child.


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Last Updated on November 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 807

Lucrezia de’ Medici

Lucrezia de’ Medici is the protagonist of The Marriage Portrait, and the story focuses on her childhood and her marriage to Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara.

Lucrezia is shrewd, artistically gifted, defiant, and impetuous, with highly attuned senses that allow her to easily read people and gather information. Compared to her siblings, she is considered disagreeable and occasionally “beastly,” both in her mannerisms and her deep affinity for animals large and small. Either out of preference, or because her differences set her apart, Lucrezia often prefers to spend time alone. She finds painting meditative, restorative, and fulfilling, and she prefers exploratory wandering to taking direct routes.

When Lucrezia is conscripted into her deceased sister’s betrothal to Alfonso, she is initially hopeful that she and the young Duke will be a good match. Ultimately, however, she struggles with the restrictions placed on her as a newly ordained Duchess and chafes against Alfonso’s mounting abuse. Incensed by her perceived failure to produce an heir, Alfonso eventually tries to poison her.

Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara

Alfonso is Lucrezia’s eventual husband and the Duke of Ferrara. Initially betrothed to her sister Maria, Alfonso courts Lucrezia after her sister dies and the two are ultimately wed.

When they first meet, Lucrezia finds Alfonso attractive and charming. He says “please” to the servants, breaks with tradition by sending her a painting of a stone marten instead of a portrait of himself as a betrothal gift, and seems genuinely concerned with her happiness when she moves to Ferrara to be with him. But soon, darker habits start to emerge: he looks the other way when his consigliere behaves violently toward a young servant, threatens Lucrezia to stay out of his family affairs, and soon becomes incredibly controlling and restrictive. He is exacting and particular, and he keeps an incredibly close watch on those around him.

Eventually, Lucrezia learns that Alfonso’s interest in her is based solely on her mother’s fertility. In the hopes of securing an heir, he has wed the daughter of the famed “La Fecundissima” of Florence. Despite this heritage, the two fail to conceive a child. It is suggested that Alfonso is sterile, but the blame for this failure is placed on Lucrezia and is his motivation for attempting her murder.


Emilia, a servant from Florence, travels to Ferrara with Lucrezia and becomes her maid. Eventually, she reveals that she is Lucrezia’s “milk-sister” and that her mother was Lucrezia’s wetnurse. 

Emilia is Lucrezia’s closest confidant and is devoted and kind. When Alfonso takes Lucrezia to the hunting lodge to kill her, Emilia secretly follows and hides in Lucrezia’s room. She is asleep in Lucrezia’s bed during Lucrezia’s escape, and Alfonso and Leonello Baldassare mistake her for Lucrezia and strangle her.

Leonello Baldassare

Leonello Baldassare is Alfonso’s consigliere and closest friend. He is brash and abrasive, and upon their first meeting, Lucrezia can tell he doesn’t like her. 

Leonello is the one who tells Lucrezia that Alfonso is interested in her only for her theoretical fertility. He also shows himself to be capable of immense cruelty and violence, and his violent act toward a servant precipitates one of Alfonso’s first threats toward Lucrezia.

He eventually conspires to help Alfonso kill Lucrezia. Unbeknownst to either of them, they kill Emilia instead. 


Jacopo is a painter’s assistant hired by the famed painter Il Bastianino to aid in the completion of Lucrezia’s marriage portrait. Purported to be mute, he eventually reveals that he speaks perfectly well. He and Lucrezia converse in the Neapolitan dialect, and the two develop feelings for each other. When Lucrezia sees the painting, with its carefully observed depiction of her, she knows that Jacopo is the one who painted it from start to finish.

When the painters come to the hunting lodge unexpectedly, interrupting Lucrezia’s murder, Jacopo recognizes the danger and helps orchestrate an escape. It is suggested that Lucrezia and Jacopo run away to Venice together and live happily there after the book’s conclusion.


Sofia, Lucrezia’s nurse, is Lucrezia’s terse but devoted protector throughout her childhood in Florence. It is with Sofia’s help that Lucrezia conceals her menses, thereby postponing her marriage to Alfonso for a year under the guise that she has not yet reached her sexual maturity.


Maria, Lucrezia’s beautiful, competent, and compliant eldest sister, appears in only a few of the book’s chapters, but her influence pervades Lucrezia’s life. Maria is the one against whom Lucrezia finds herself constantly compared, and it is Maria to whom Alfonso is initially betrothed. When Maria dies, Lucrezia is conscripted to be her replacement and comes to feel that she has stepped into Maria’s own life.

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