The Marriage Portrait of Maggie O’Farrell: A tragic true story with eye-popping period details

From the start, Lucrezia, third daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici, is a force to be reckoned with. She “will only rest in constant movement…a baby whose eyes are open, always, as if looking for distant horizons”. At four years old, she spent hours kneeling at the windows, “gazing at the city and the distant hills beyond”.

and whatever dreams or ambitions this child might have for a life beyond her own palace, they come to naught when, at 12, she realizes she should marry Alfonso, the 24-year-old Duke who was intended for his older sister Maria. When her sister dies suddenly on the eve of her own wedding, Lucrezia literally steps into her shoes (and is tied up in her sister’s gorgeous wedding dress) to marry her in the chapel of the Palazzo Pitti.

“Live a long life and be happy,” Lucrezia’s nanny, Sofia, told her on her wedding day. These words would take on a whole new meaning over time.

Now married, Lucrezia would naturally have to put aside her own artistic pursuits and initially live in a secluded hunting lodge in the woods (apparently to “rest”). It is clear that his only duty is to provide an heir to the Ferrera dynasty. It soon becomes clear that Lucrezia was chosen for the marriage due to the hope that her mother’s proven fertility was hereditary – her mother had effortlessly had so many children, 11 in total, that she had earned the nickname of “La Fecundissima”.

Navigating a complex new court, Lucrezia feels at the mercy of her mysterious husband when the long-awaited heir has not arrived within a year.

Lucrezia died in 1561 aged 16 from what was called a “putrid fever” at the official autopsy, although rumors abounded after her death that she was in fact poisoned. In the lonely early years of her marriage, according to Maggie O’Farrell, she herself was certain that her own husband, with whom she had fallen in love, wanted her dead.

As historical fiction tropes go, the naïve virginal desire to provide an unmoved husband with an heir to the dynasty is now pretty caring. Yet O’Farrell managed to breathe whole new life into this plot with a 16th-century world bursting with detail and color.

She was obviously inspired to explore Lucrezia’s life further after coming across a ‘disturbing’ portrait of the young Duchess, considered quite ordinary at the time, by Italian Mannerist painter Bronzino.

Abundantly researched and aided by a great imagination, O’Farrell’s Florence skips the page.

In Hamnet, Winner of the Women’s Prize For Fiction, O’Farrell excelled in the art of immersive historical storytelling, crafting her story of Shakespeare’s son with equally impressive attention to detail. Since her first novel in 2000, After your departureO’Farrell’s writing was evocative and lyrical, becoming even lusher with each new title. Hamnet turned out to be a shift after O’Farrell’s memoir I am, I am, I am had galvanized his reputation as an extremely versatile writer.

Certainly, the subject of his latest historical fiction novel is a compelling one, and one whose brief life lends itself well to tension and intrigue. Lucrezia de’ Medici’s life and death have always been shrouded in mystery, and these brief years of marriage have seen the imaginative maiden grow into a physically fragile young woman. What happened in those dark years between exchanging vows and dying young, O’Farrell presents in illuminating detail.

More than anything, his account of Lucrezia is deeply human. The Coleraine-born writer effortlessly inhabits the mind of an unhappy young 16th-century princess, giving voice to a passionately artistic, sometimes dissociative figure. A motley crew of other characters are well-drawn, from the endearing and passionate nanny Emilia to the callous and conflicted Alfonso.

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Lucrezia contrasts with the pomp and opulence of the royal court, and it is impossible not to feel deeply the sheer tragedy of her final months.

The portrait of marriage is a divine union of well-drawn characters, the transport power of period detail, and the sleight of hand of a writer at the top of her game.

Lucrezia’s death may have happened centuries ago, but it still reads as relevant. It would be tempting to say that O’Farrell found his stylistic forte in historical fiction.

Yet her readers will know her as far more brilliantly nimble than that.

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The Wedding Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

The Wedding Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

Fiction: The Wedding Portrait of Maggie O’Farrell

Tinder Press, 448 pages, paperback €15.99; e-book €10.99

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