I have read a number of books in recent years that explore the limitations imposed on young women in nearly every era of our past. But none makes it more real than THE MARRIAGE PORTRAIT. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.
At the start of the book in an Historical Note, author Maggie O’Farrell writes:
“In 1560, 15-year-old Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici left Florence to begin her married life with Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara (1533-1597). Less than a year later, she would be dead.“
With sparse historical information to draw from, O’Farrell then crafts this remarkable novel that fleshes out Lucrezia’s life and exposes her inner most soul.
As the fifth child and third daughter of the famous Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574)(Grand Duke of Tuscany), young Lucrezia (1545-1561) is of little interest to her family, largely ignored by both parents and siblings. But that lack of interest also allows her some freedom to follow her own interests — a love of wild animals, an uncanny talent for art, and a love of exploration.
Well educated, talented, and intelligent, Lucrezia finally comes to her parents’ attention after her older sister Maria dies and Lucrezia is then betrothed to her dead sister’s fiance. Like most marriages among the wealthy at this time, the union was arranged to add prestige and wealth to the Medicis and to Lucrezia’s future husband, Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, Modena, and Reggio.
The marriage takes place after Lucrezia turns fifteen when she is immediately moved from her home and family in Florence to one of her new husband’s many properties. Isolated by language and distant from those she loves, Lucrezia’s chief job from then on, is to produce a much needed male heir for the House of Este.
Similar to her previous novel HAMNET, O’Farrell’s writing is beautiful–full of rich descriptions about Renaissance life in Italy’s 16th century, including the privileged and isolated life of a Duchess. O’Farrell, who is exceedingly gifted at revealing the inner worlds of her characters, narrates this novel from Lucrezia’s standpoint. So, we are privy to this young woman’s every thought. What she thinks when she first meets her husband? How conflicted she is about marrying a stranger? How much she wants to please her old and new families, without losing who she is?
The book moves smoothly back and forth in time — from Lucrezia’s early years, to events surrounding her marriage ceremony, and, finally to her brief marriage and illness. I think what I found most exceptional is how much I came to love Lucrezia. Watching a vibrant, inquisitive child, full of talent and creativity, slowly transformed and limited by social conventions is NOT an easy story to read. It is, in fact, supremely sad. Especially when you understand how Lucrezia represents just one of the thousands (perhaps millions) of women who have been sidelined, ignored, used, and wasted over the centuries. A very compelling novel!
More about the author, Maggie O’Farrell.
You may be interested in my review of another O’Farrell novel, HAMNET.