The Marriage Portrait

Maggie O'Farrell

The Marriage Portrait
Headline Publishing Group
United Kingdom
6 July 2023

The Marriage Portrait

Maggie O'Farrell

The instant Sunday Times bestseller from the acclaimed author of Hamnet, The Marriage Portrait is a dazzling evocation of the Italian Renaissance in all its beauty and brutality.

Winter, 1561. Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara, is taken on an unexpected visit to a country villa by her husband, Alfonso. As they sit down to dinner it occurs to Lucrezia that Alfonso has a sinister purpose in bringing her here. He intends to kill her.

Lucrezia is sixteen years old, and has led a sheltered life locked away inside Florence's grandest palazzo. Here, in this remote villa, she is entirely at the mercy of her increasingly erratic husband.

What is Lucrezia to do with this sudden knowledge? What chance does she have against Alfonso, ruler of a province, and a trained soldier? How can she ensure her survival.

The Marriage Portrait is an unforgettable reimagining of the life of a young woman whose proximity to power places her in mortal danger.


It is 1560 and Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, is unsatisfied with previous portraits of Lucrezia di Cosimo de’Medici. There ought to be a painting that matches her exquisite beauty. So, shortly after Lucrezia and Alfonso are married in Florence, he commissions Sebastiano Filippi to paint a grand portrait of his wife, the new Duchess of Ferrara. As this portrait nears completion, Lucrezia realises that her husband intends to kill her.

This is the crux of Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel The Marriage Portrait, which follows her prize-winning Hamnet. In this novel, O’Farrell turns her attention to renaissance Italy, and another forgotten woman of history, Lucrezia.

While born to a great house, Lucrezia is an outsider. She is bemused by the formalities of the court, its rules and traditions. She has no desire to serve her function, to marry, to produce heirs, to be the filament that joins two powerful families. She is keenly attuned to the injustices of her world and has the strength of spirit to stand up for her convictions. She is a talented painter, interested in things that she should not be interested in. This makes her complicated, difficult to manage, an oddity to both her family and her new husband.

Lucrezia’s story is told in two timelines that alternate through the chapters: her childhood in Florence, and the period after her marriage to Alfonso. The depiction of Lucrezia and Alfonso’s relationship is utterly terrifying. Lucrezia, still just 15 years old, finds herself in an abusive relationship with a man who she barely knows. She has no means to extricate herself, and no one to help her.

This strange world and its characters are made fathomable through O’Farrell’s use of detail. Her descriptions are visceral, arresting and transportive. She understands that it isn’t the expected that makes historical fiction ‘believable’, but the unexpected.

Joe Rubbo is the operations manager at Readings.

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