‘The Wedding Portrait’ by Maggie O’Farrell

By all accounts, the short and sheltered life of Lucrezia di Cosimo de’Medici was not the one you would have liked to live. Born into wealth and power, she had neither. Married at 13 to the fiancé of a deceased older sister, she herself died at 16. Modern experts assume the culprit was tuberculosis, not uncommon in 1561. Gossip has come to a different conclusion: she was murdered by the Duke of Ferrara, her husband.

This grim assumption persisted long enough to inspire Robert Browning’s 1842 poem “My Last Duchess,” in which a noble noble shows the portrait of his dead wife to a bride’s family member. Today, Maggie O’Farrell wrote her own version of the Lucrezia story and, as you’d expect from the author of ‘Hamnet’, she pulled pure gold from that. tragic story.

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2021, ‘Hamnet’ offered a fresh perspective on a rural boy 16e-century in England whose life and death inspired his grieving playwright father to create one of the most enduring works of all time. Like “Hamnet”, “The Marriage Portrait” builds a rich inner world while vividly recreating an era, in this case the Italian Renaissance, a time brimming with intrigue and pomp, rustling heavy fabrics and glowing frescoes. , blood and lust and the desire for power.

O’Farrell takes some liberties with the story, adjusting Lucrezia’s age and other realities. Lucrezia was 15, for example, on her wedding day, still small enough to feel trapped in her enormous dress, a harbinger of what was to come.

A strange child, fifth in a line of eight – her mother’s nickname is “La Fecundissima” – Lucrezia is a quick learner, whether she is studying Greek history, drawing perspective on a page or practicing the subtle art of manipulation . Savagery fascinates her. When her father brings a tigress to his zoo in the bowels of their Florentine palace, she is hypnotized by the beast, certain that an understanding passes between them.

This tiger, who dies in his underground prison, haunts the novel, as Lucrezia, caught in her own golden cage, discovers the truth about her enigmatic new husband. She endures what she hates: posing for a wedding portrait, the invasive act intended to produce an heir. When no heir materializes, fear sets in.

And yet she is aware of an inner deployment. She feels “the rising of what she considers her spirit – the free part of herself that no one, not even her, has access to. She lives somewhere deep within her, beneath the layers of expensive palace clothes, mostly in hibernation, as if under a blanket of leaves, until he was called to action.Then he could uncoil, crawl towards the light, blink his eyes, bristle, clenching his filthy fists and opening his jagged red mouth.

That mouth, those fists, that ferocity! These are the gifts, O’Farrell suggests, that Lucrezia can use to survive in this harsh world. May they serve us well too.

Connie Ogle is a Florida writer.

The portrait of marriage

By: Maggie O’Farrell.

Editor: Alfred A. Knopf, 448 pages, $28.

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