Review: Reimagining the fate of a doomed Renaissance duchess

“The Marriage Portrait,” by Maggie O’Farrell (Knopf)

Stories of high-born girls confined to castles, forced to marry young, and pressured to have sons or die trying are the stuff of dark fantasy these days on HBO.

Novelist Maggie O’Farrell comes at that scenario in a different, more psychological way, through the character of a real girl in Renaissance Italy.

In her first novel since the lovely “Hamnet,” which won a National Book Critics Circle Award and other prizes, O’Farrell again reaches back to the 16th century to imagine the inner life of a figure about whom the historical record is thin but intriguing.

In “Hamnet,” that was Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife. Here, it’s Lucrezia de’ Medici, who died under suspicious circumstances in 1561 at just 16 years old. Although the official cause of death was illness, it was rumored that her husband of less than a year, Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, killed her.

That murkiness gives O’Farrell plenty of room to look for skips in the historical record and build Hitchcockian suspense.

The Renaissance palazzos and castellos portrayed here have gorgeous, sunlit exteriors but dark, thick-walled interiors. New ideas of art and commerce coexist with rigid social hierarchies and superstition.

Lucrezia was part of the most powerful family in Florence, the Medicis. Being a girl, she lived a confined existence, unable to venture much beyond her rooms. (The dim, dull life inside the palazzo contrasts with the glare of the lively square outside; an offhand description is given of a statue the Medicis have put outside their door – it’s only Michelangelo’s “David.”)

Things slowly become even more claustrophobic after Lucrezia is married off against her will.

The novel jumps back and forth in time, beginning with the day she comes to believe she will be murdered, and diving all the way back to her conception.

And although we are told her fate from the start, we come to believe that this teenager is a match for the evil simmering in the palace courts around her. Observant and compassionate, Lucrezia is an outsider in that world.

She finds some freedom in nature and art. But although she is a gifted artist, nobody considers any future for her other than as a powerful man’s wife.

O’Farrell has cited Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess,” as inspiring her interest in this Renaissance story. The poem paints a creepy picture of Alfonso showing a stranger a portrait of his deceased wife, which he keeps behind a curtain so only he can look at it. O’Farrell found a real portrait of Lucrezia in a Florence gallery, and it radiated intelligence and mystery.

The novel dwells on a technique popular in the Renaissance called “overpainting,” in which you apply the final layers of paint on top of an existing image, either covering it or allowing the old and new images to merge. Lucrezia frequently uses this practice, just as she learns to hide her true self beneath a formal, superficial surface.

Likewise, O’Farrell has taken a historical footnote – the death of a 16-year-old duchess – and added imaginative strokes that paint a different picture.

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