The Marriage Portrait

by Maggie O'Farrell

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Last Updated on November 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 864

The palazzo of Lucrezia’s father was a changeable building, unstable as a weathervane. Sometimes it felt to her like the safest place in the world, a stone keep with a high garrison perimeter to enclose the Grand Duke’s children like a cabinet for glass figurines; at others it felt as oppressive as a prison. 

This passage from “The First Tiger in Tuscany,” one of the book’s early chapters, sets the scene for Lucrezia’s ongoing relationship to her surroundings. She is restricted to stay at home during her childhood, but she is also protected from the world by the house that restricts her. As she relocates from one fortified property to another throughout the course of the narrative, each new environment proves itself capable of being both protective and restrictive. Even when she moves to Ferrara, finally having the freedom to wander as she likes for the first time in her life, Alfonso becomes the force that restricts her instead. 

This shifting relationship to space is mirrored by her personal relationships. Early in her life, parents are her protectors, but they also facilitate her downfall by arranging a dangerous marriage for her to suit their own needs. Alfonso, too, tasks himself with ensuring her safety and to some degree her comfort, but he is emotionally and physically abusive in a way that builds figurative walls around her as strong or stronger than the literal ones.

Lucrezia twisted one way, then the other, baffled, trying to see what they could see. What was it about her back that was so remarkable today? Then she saw it. A patch on her shift, halfway down, dark red and the shape of a landform, a distant and unmapped island surrounded by a vast white sea.

In this passage, from “Something Read in the Pages of a Book,” Lucrezia’s mother discovers a menstrual stain on Lucrezia’s shift. This, in the context of the narrative, means that Lucrezia is considered a “woman” and is finally ready for marriage to Alfonso.

That the author should embrace cartographic imagery and describe the stain as a map of uncharted territory is apt in that it signifies Lucrezia’s departure to an unknown place with an unknown man, towards unknown tribulations and an uncertain fate.

An artist might paint a scene or a portrait, then cover it with an entirely different painting. It happened all the time, if an artist was unsatisfied with the first attempt or was short of money to buy materials or if he wished to conceal the work he had produced, for whatever reason, or desired merely to give the finished work a sense of light and shade. . . a tavola or canvas, Vasari explained, might have three or four different paintings on it, all existing in secret layers. As with this one.

This passage from “Something Read in the Pages of a Book” represents a formative moment for Lucrezia. This is when she learns from the artist Vasari of the practice of “underpainting,” whereby an artist paints one subject and then conceals it with another.

Lucrezia’s own work will eventually grow to incorporate this technique. As her world becomes increasingly restrictive, she begins to rely on underpainting to express her truest thoughts and desires in secret. This is a symbolic analog to what she ultimately does to survive her difficult circumstances: burying her own truest self under a facade of compliance and belonging.

Lucrezia sighs again and stabs the needle through the cloth, pulling the thread taut. The embroidery is one Isabella embarked on months ago, a rose surrounded by a border of gold. . . . She turns the hoop over and inspects the underside. She has always had a secret liking for this part of the embroidery, the “wrong” side, congested with knots, striations of silk and twists of thread. How much more interesting it is, with its frank display of the labour needed to attain the perfection of the finished piece.

In this passage from “Honey Water,” the author uses the metaphor of embroidery to highlight Lucrezia’s relationship to the world she lives in. While noblewomen are expected to present ornamental perfection and effortless grace, like the front of the embroidery, Lucrezia herself prefers the embroidery’s tangled back. She likes to see brushstrokes in paintings, proof of her labor and the labor of those around her. While others prefer the palazzo’s main halls, Lucrezia likes the secret, interconnected passageways that lie beyond and beneath the perceivable surface. 

She stands there. She takes a breath, then another. She inserts her fingers into the lock and extracts the rags she finds, one by one, holding up their crumpled, oily lengths in disbelief. How incredible, how unlikely, that such frail things could jam the mechanism of a heavy iron lock.

This passage from “The Underpainting and The Overpainting,” the book’s final chapter, serves as a metaphor for Lucrezia herself. Despite the advanced security of the fortezza and Alfonso’s certainty at having created an unbreachable border, the lock is defeated by something small and unassuming. Just so, Lucrezia—small and unassuming herself—has evaded the rigid, powerful, intractable “iron lock” that is Alfonso.

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