> Zed Book Club / How “The Marriage Portrait” Was Inspired by a Poem About a Renaissance Painting of a Noblewoman

Photo: Murdo Macleod

> Bookshelf

How “The Marriage Portrait” Was Inspired by a Poem About a Renaissance Painting of a Noblewoman

In a Q&A with "Hamnet" author Maggie O'Farrell, she talks about reading Robert Browning, underpainting and how little is known about the life and death of Lucrezia de' Medici / BY Rosemary Counter / September 23rd, 2022


Northern Irish author Maggie O’Farrell returns after the runaway success of Hamnet, winner of the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Award, a fictionalized tale about a Stratford couple, Will (Shakespeare) and his wife, Agnes, who are healing from the death of their young son. This time, O’Farrell sticks to the same century, but crosses the Mediterranean to transport readers to Florence, Italy.  Upon the untimely death of her betrothed older sister, 15-year-old firecracker (and deft palace sneaker-arounder), Lucrezia de’ Medici is wed to her sister’s fiancé, the much-older Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrera, an unpredictable figure who or may or may not be trying to kill her. 

Historical details are sparse, but the true story of Lucrezia’s life and death – and the haunting titular portrait that survives to this day – was sufficiently juicy to inspire Robert Browning’s eerie 1842 poem, “My Last Duchess” (“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall/Looking as if she were alive”) and, nearly two centuries later, O’Farrell’s new best-selling book, The Marriage Portrait. Zoomer called the bestselling author in Edinburgh to discuss moments of inspiration, the fabulous literary gift of creative liberty and the lingering allure of an unsolvable maybe-murder. 

 

Maggie O'Farrell

 

Rosemary Counter: Where was this book born? I’m imagining you in a museum somewhere, seeing the portrait and being immediately stuck with inspiration. 

Maggie O’Farrell: Not quite, I’m sorry to say. In February 2020, I was thinking about what to write next, and in the meantime, I’d been re-reading Robert Browning. I’d known “My Last Duchess” was based on real events, so I plugged the name into my phone, and within a few moments I’d downloaded her portrait. The jewels, the headdress, her nervous eyes — as soon as I saw her, I knew she was my next book. People in Renaissance paintings tend to look expressionless, but not Lucrezia.

RC: What should someone like me know about…I keep calling her “Lucy” because I know I’ll butcher her name. 

MO: I actually had a friend from Milan say her full name into my microphone so I could really get it inside my head. 

RC: Wow, now I feel even worse about “Lucy.” In my defense, I’d never heard of her before. 

MO: Don’t feel badly, nobody knows about her. There’s not much to know, because she died so young. But we know when she was born, when she got married and when she died. I know that her parents really loved each other, were faithful to each other, and wrote lovely letters to each other when they were apart. Much of the letters were about routine domestic life — they had 12 children — so things like so-and-so needs to study more and so-and-so needs new shoes. Lucrezia grew up in that big loving family and then was plucked away to marry Alfonso. Officially, she died almost a year later of a fever, and people say that was natural causes, but others think she was poisoned. No one knows what really happened. 

RC: You did such a good job writing Alfonso. I kept going back and forth over whether he was good or bad, nice or trying to kill her, whether she was rightfully terrified or unnecessary paranoid. 

MO: Yes, that was quite deliberate. I didn’t want the reader to know his intentions because Lucrezia doesn’t know. Maybe he’s benign, maybe he’s dangerous, she can never quite tell. 

RC: It must be so great to have so much wiggle room to take some creative liberty.  

MO: It is, but I always try to be respectful to the idea that these people were real. For a novelist like me, gaps are certainly opportunities, but anything I did discover I would incorporate into the characters—even if it didn’t fit into my versions of them. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I knew that I wanted to work towards an ending that wasn’t what you’re expecting. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, narratively speaking. 

RC: Oh, I think you definitely did. Again, no spoilers, but tell us a little bit about under paintings? 

MO: While researching this book, I got a bit fascinated by under paintings. Even something like the Mona Lisa, if you look at it with an x-ray, has many layers where you can see da Vinci’s various iterations of her face. Each is a completely different take on Mona Lisa, a face so familiar to all of us, that tells a completely different story. Sometimes they even discover completely different paintings underneath other paintings, because artists were sometimes so poor that they had no choice but to reuse their canvases. 

RC: Tell me about your research process? Please say you went on an Italian vacation. 

MO: I started this book right at the beginning of the pandemic, and when lockdown finally lifted, I did get to finally go to Italy to visit Lucrezia’s tomb. She’s buried at the monastery in Ferrara, and I knocked on the door asking to see her tomb, and the nun kept saying, ‘Oh, you mean Lucrezia Borgia, a very famous Renaissance noblewoman and the daughter of the Pope.’ The nun told me that nobody had visited my Lucrezia’s grave, ever. 

RC: After all your work, are you convinced whether or not she was murdered?

MO: I’m only convinced that we’ll never know, sadly. I know that after her death relations between the Florentine court and the Ferrara court took a nosedive. That says a lot to me. But I don’t know, it’s impossible to say. I do wish she could tell me. As I’m talking to you now, I’ve got the portrait pinned on my board, looking on me with her very serious gaze. 

 

THE SCROLL

Here are the 5 Books on Bill Gates’ Holiday Reading ListThe billionaire philanthropist is giving hundreds of copies to little libraries around the world


Sheila Heti and Eli Baxter Among 2022 Governor General’s Literary Award WinnersToronto writer Sheila Heti took home the fiction award for 'Pure Colour,' a novel the GG peer assessment committee called "a work of genius."


Suzette Mayr Wins $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize for ‘The Sleeping Car Porter’The 2022 Giller Prize jury called Mayr's novel "alive and immediate — and eerily contemporary."


Writers’ Trust of Canada Awards: Authors Nicholas Herring, Dan Werb Nab Top PrizesThe Writers' Trust of Canada awards amounted to a combined monetary prize value of $270,000.


Bob Dylan Releases ‘The Philosophy of Modern Song,’ a Book of Essays Dissecting 66 Influential SongsIn his new book, Bob Dylan offers up both critique and historical insight into various musical recordings of the last century by a variety of popular artists.


Prince Harry’s Memoir ‘Spare’ Will Be Published in January 2023The long-awaited memoir will tell with "raw unflinching honesty" Prince Harry's journey from "trauma to healing", his publisher said on Thursday.


Sri Lankan Author Shehan Karunatilaka Wins 2022 Booker PrizeKarunatilaka won the prestigious prize on Monday for his second novel ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’, about a dead war photographer on a mission in the afterlife.


Canadian Council for the Arts Reveals Governor General’s Literary Awards FinalistsThe finalists for the Governor General's Literary Awards spotlight books in both the English and French language, as well as translated works.


New Penguin Random House Award Named After Michelle Obama Will Honour High School WritersMichelle Obama Award for Memoir will provide a $10,000 college scholarship to a graduating public school senior based on their autobiographical submission.


French Author Annie Ernaux, 82, Becomes First French Woman to Win Nobel Prize for LiteratureThe author said, of winning, that "I was very surprised ... I never thought it would be on my landscape as a writer."


Hilary Mantel, Award-Winning British Author of ‘Wolf Hall’ Trilogy, Dies at 70Wolf Hall, published in 2009, and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies, released three years later, both won the Booker Prize, an unprecedented win for two books in the same trilogy and making Mantel the first woman to win the award twice.


Prince William “Cannot Forgive” Prince Harry, According to ‘The New Royals’ Author Katie NichollPrince William “just cannot forgive his brother,” according to Katie Nicholl, author of 'The New Royals: Queen Elizabeth’s Legacy and the Future of the Crown.'


Five Finalists Announced for Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for NonfictionThe winner — to be announced on November 2 — will take home the annual $60,000 prize.


Peter Straub, Bestselling American Horror Writer, Dies at 79Friend and co-author Stephen King has said the author's 1979 book, "Ghost Story," is his favourite horror novel.


Rawi Hage, Billy-Ray Belcourt and Sheila Heti Make the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize Long ListThe jury read 138 books to choose 14 titles for the long list, one of which will win the $100,000 prize, one of the richest in Canadian literature


Salman Rushdie, Novelist Who Drew Death Threats, Is Stabbed at New York LectureThe Indian-born novelist who was ordered killed by Iran in 1989 because of his writing, was attacked before giving a talk on artistic freedom.


Raymond Briggs, Creator of Beloved Children’s Tale ‘The Snowman’, Dies at 88First published in 1978, the pencil crayon-illustrated wordless picture book sold more than 5.5 million copies around the world while a television adaption became a Christmas favourite in Britain and was nominated for an Oscar.


Canadian Author Emily St. John Mandel Makes Barack Obama’s 2022 Summer Reading ListObama's list includes everything from fiction to books on politics, cultural exploration and basketball.


Canadian Author Rebecca Eckler to Launch RE:books Publishing House Focused on Female Authors and Fun ReadsThe former National Post columnist says her tagline is ‘What’s read is good, and what’s good is read.’”


Brian Thomas Isaac’s “All the Quiet Places” wins $5,000 Indigenous Voices AwardThe B.C. author, a retired bricklayer, drew on his childhood growing up on the Okanagan Indian reserve for his coming-of-age story set in 1956


Canadian-American Author Ruth Ozeki Wins Women’s Book Prize for “The Book of Form and Emptiness”The UK judges said her fourth novel, inspired in part by the Vancouver Public Library, contained "sparkling writing, warmth, intelligence, humour and poignancy."


The Bill Gates Summer Reading List Includes a Sci-Fi Novel On Gender Inequality Suggested by His DaughterBill Gates' summer reading list includes fiction and non-fiction titles that cover gender equality, political polarization and climate change.


American novelist Joshua Cohen wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “The Netanyahus”The 2022 Pulitzer prizes include this satirical look at identity politics, focused on the father of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a crucial time in the Jewish state’s history


Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro Among Canadian Authors Recognized in Commemorative Reading List Marking Queen’s Platinum JubileeThe authors are among six Canadian scribes included on the The Big Jubilee Read list.


Queen Elizabeth II’s Aide Reveals Details of Life in Royal Pandemic Lockdown in New Addition to BookAngela Kelly, who's worked for the Queen for 20 years, discusses everything from cutting the Queen's hair to "the light and laughter that was shared ... even in the darkest moments."


New Leonard Cohen Story Collection, ‘A Ballet of Lepers,’ Set for October ReleaseThe collection features a novel, short stories and a radio play written between 1956 and 1961.


Archived Letters Reveal How Toni Morrison Helped MacKenzie Scott Meet Future Husband Jeff BezosBezos hired Scott at the hedge fund where he worked after receiving a recommendation from Morrison. Shortly thereafter, the pair married and Scott helped Bezos launch Amazon.


Prince Harry’s Memoir is Set to Rock the MonarchyFriends say the California-based royal got a million-pound book deal to write "an intimate take on his feeling about the family."


European Jewish Congress Asks Publisher to Pull Anne Frank BookThe Congress says 'The Betrayal of Anne Frank' has "deeply hurt the memory of Anne Frank, as well as the dignity of the survivors and the victims of the Holocaust."


Canadian Author Details Anne Frank Cold-Case Investigation That Named Surprise Suspect in Her Family’s Betrayal in New BookAhead of the 75th anniversary of the publication of Frank's 'The Diary of a Young Girl' in June, a team that included a retired FBI agent and around 20 historians, criminologists and data specialists identified a relatively unknown figure as a leading suspect in revealing her family's hideout.


Man Who Tricked Authors Into Handing Over Unpublished Manuscripts Arrested by FBI in New YorkFilippo Bernardini, an employee of a well known publication house, has been arrested for stealing hundreds of unpublished manuscripts.


Hollywood Legend Betty White Has a Last Laugh in New Biographic Comic BookThe creators of the biographical comic book have released similar books about Hollywood legends like Carrie Fisher, Lucille Ball, David Bowie and Elizabeth Taylor.


Barack Obama Reveals His List of Books That Left “A Lasting Impression” in 2021Obama's favourite 2021 reads include two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead's 'Harlem Shuffle' and 'Klara and the Sun,' by Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro


“Interview With the Vampire” Author Anne Rice Dies at 80 — Tributes Pour in From Stuart Townsend and OthersThe author, who was best known for her work in gothic fiction, died on Saturday evening as a result of complications from a stroke.


Norma Dunning wins $25,000 Governor General’s English fiction prize for ‘Tainna’The Edmonton-based Inuk writer explores themes of displacement, loneliness and spirituality in six short stories


Omar El Akkad wins $100,000 Giller prize for “What Strange Paradise”The former Globe and Mail reporter, who published "American War" to acclaim in 2017, tackles the global migrant refugee crisis in his second novel


South African Author Damon Galgut Wins the Booker Prize For ‘The Promise’Galgut received nominations for his 2003 and 2010 works before finally taking home the prize this year. 


Hollywood Legend Paul Newman Discusses Life, Acting and Aging Gracefully in Newly Discovered MemoirPublishers of the newly discovered memoir say the Hollywood legend wrote the book in the 1980s in response to the relentless media attention he received during that time.


Here’s What You Need to Know About the Toronto International Festival of AuthorsDirector Roland Gulliver lands in Toronto to open his second, much-expanded virtual festival with more than 200 events


Tanzanian Novelist Gurnah Wins 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature for Depicting the Impact of Colonialism and Refugee StoriesGurnah, 72, is only the second writer from sub-Saharan Africa to win one of the world's most prestigious literary awards


Miriam Toews Garners Third Giller Prize Nomination for “Fight Night” after Shortlist AnnouncedSophomore efforts from novelists Omar El Akkad and Jordan Tannahill join debut books from Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia and Angélique Lalonde


Tina Brown’s New Book, ‘The Palace Papers’, Covers the Royal Family’s Reinvention After Diana’s Tragic DeathTina Brown's sequel to her 2007 release 'The Diana Chronicles' is set to hit shelves April 12, 2022. 


Audible.ca Releases Andrew Pyper’s Exclusive Audiobook “Oracle” For New Plus Catalogue LaunchThe thriller about a psychic FBI detective is one of 12,000 titles now available for free to members


Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen to Release Book Based On Their “Renegades” PodcastThe new book will feature a collection of candid, intimate and entertaining conversations


Prince Harry Will Publish a Memoir in Late 2022Harry says he's writing the book "not as the prince I was born but as the man I have become."


> STAY UP TO DATE

Sign Up for the Weekly Book Club Newsletter