- 30 Aug 22
The Vanishing Act Of Lucrezia de' Medici
Following the devastating brilliance of a novel that connected with so many people like Hamnet can’t be easy – that ending still has me a bit delicate - but O’Farrell doesn’t seem to have had much trouble. While that book used the story of Shakespeare’s son to document the joy and heartbreak – and the worst pain imaginable - that maternity can bring; The Marriage Portrait employs Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess as a jumping off point to tell the story of a free-spirited woman – a child, really – forcibly tethered by marriage.
Lucrezia, who, in Browning’s words, “liked whate’er she looked on”, is the youngest daughter of Cosimo de’Medici and different from the off, possibly because her mother Eleanora’s mind had wandered to a map of ancient lands and “strange and wild seas, filled with dragons and monsters” at the point of conception. Lucrezia impresses tutors with her art, bests her siblings with her knowledge of Agamemnon and his unfortunate daughter in Classical studies, and has such an innate feeling for nature that her touch is enough to calm the first Tiger in Tuscany, brought in as an addition to her father’s menagerie. Okay, the parallels here between the wild nature of the tiger and Lucrezia’s own unconventionality - and you could speculate on the connection to the sacrifice of Iphigenia while you're at it - might be some broad stroke brush work but O’Farrell’s painting of this tiger burning bright , with its “visage of an incandescent, forbidden deity” more than makes up for it.
All this admirable individualism is cast aside when her sister Maria dies and her fiancé, Alfonso d’Este, heir to a dukedom, negotiates to marry Lucrezia instead. The inevitable is delayed by the loyalty of servant Sofia who hides the evidence of Lucrezia’s physical maturity but a tell-tale stain eventually gives the game away. Alfonso might not seem so bad as the wedding approaches – he gifts the young bride to be a precious painting and his grandmother’s jewel – but the reader already knows from the book’s first chapter that he’ll eventually turn on her.
The wedding is sumptuously described and Alfonso's eventual claiming of his conjugal rights is as harrowing as you might imagine but again O’Farrell navigates it with sympathetic skill, taking the reader away from it with Lucrezia as she leaves her body behind. Imprisoned in her new home, she suffers under her husband’s darkening character, failing – as far as he’s concerned - at her sole duty, the provision of an heir.
He commissions a portrait of her that he demands will stun all who see it, and indeed an extant painting of the actual Lucrezia, attributed to Agnolo Bronzino, a mannerist painter from Florence, was the major impetus behind O’Farrell writing this novel. For my part, I feel you have to read between Browning’s lines to ascertain his Lucrezia’s fate. With O’Farrell, however, her sparkling language and astonishing descriptive powers chart in no uncertain terms Lucrezia’s destruction, in parallel to the creation of the work of art that will grant her a certain immortality, an immortality renewed by this captivating novel.