Photo: Murdo Macleod
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.
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.