“The Marriage Portrait” is a beautifully written piece of historical fiction revolving around the marriage of 13 year old (15 in the novel) Lucrezia di Cosimo de’Medici to Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara in 1560.
The novel begins with 16 year old Lucrezia and her husband, not quite a year into their marriage, traveling to the Duke’s hunting lodge. Lucrezia suddenly realizes why they are there. “This is the reason for their sudden journey to such a wild and lonely place. He has brought her here, to this stone fortress, to murder her.”
The novel then moves back and forth, chapter by chapter, from Lucrezia’s birth to the moment that brings her to the lonely lodge and her fear of what is about to happen there.
Lucrezia, the fifth child of Eleanora and Cosimo, was a wild child and for a time was banished to the servant’s quarters. Ultimately she is returned to the nursery to be raised by Sofia, along with her many brothers and sisters. Lucrezia’s life is one of privilege, living in a grand palazzo in Florence. Her father keeps a sort of menagerie in the basement and one day Lucrezia sees a tiger arrive. When their father takes some of the children, including Lucrezia to see the animals, Lucrezia, to the horror of the servants and her father, actually pets the tiger.
Through her studies in the Palazzo Lucrezia discovers that she has significant artistic talent. She spends as much time as she can painting all sort of creatures and ideas.
Her sister, Maria, is engaged to Duke Alfonso but before they are married she contracts a fever and dies. Alfonso tells the family he would like to marry Lucrezia. She is 12 years old at the time of this request and he is approximately 27. Lucrezia and Sofia scheme to delay the marriage, but ultimately they are married when Lucrezia is 15 years old. The two spend the first weeks of their marriage in a villa before moving to the palace where Alfonso runs state. It becomes clear that Alfonso is keen to produce an heir as soon as possible to cement his position. However, Lucrezia is warned that although he has been very active with other women, Alfonso has never produced an heir. It also becomes clear that Alfonso expects complete devotion from his wife. “’You are my wife and I scarcely need to remind you that your first and foremost duty must always be to me. No one else…’”
Alfonso is alternatingly kind and nasty with Lucrezia. One day while he is out and Lucrezia is wandering in the villa, she hears a noise and finds a man has fallen. She is able to revive him with honey and he is grateful. He is an apprentice to a famous artist who has been retained by Alfonso to paint Lucrezia’s marriage portrait. The process of creating the portrait is a significant part of the story.
Ultimately Lucrezia and Alfonso move to the family palace where Lucrezia becomes close to Alfonso’s older sister Elisabetta. Elisabetta is having a forbidden romance with Ercole Contrari, the head of the guardsmen in the palace. When Alfonso discovers the romance the extent of his cruelty is on display.
The story ends in the bleak hunting lodge where Lucrezia is certain that Alfonso is trying to kill her, in part because of her independent nature (which he deplores) and in part because she has not yet given him an heir. Even though I know how the story ends (it is historical fiction after all), I was still on pins and needles at the end. The novel is perfectly written and is a nerve wracking page turner! You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.