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The Search for a Marriage Portrait
It’s no secret that I enjoy a good story but throw in some art, in particular portraiture, add a bit of Renaissance Italy and it’s bound to be a winning combination. Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel The Marriage Portrait did not disappoint. It is a highly fictionalised account of the life of Lucrezia de’ Medici based not so much on her actual life but inspired by the Robert Browning poem My Last Duchess. Having only a sketchy knowledge of the Medici family and zero knowledge of poetry of any kind, it sent me off on yet another rabbit hole of research and discovery.
Eleanor of Toledo and her son Giovanni, 1545, Bronzino
Lucrezia was born on Valentine’s Day in 1545 in Florence, the fifth of nine children of Cosimo de’ Medici the Grand Duke of Tuscany and his enigmatic Spanish wife Eleanor of Toledo. Lucrezia and her brothers and sisters, despite being brought up in the luxurious surroundings of the Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti, led relatively simple lives, being raised in close quarters, sharing beds, and wearing each other’s hand me down clothes, even if they were made from rich fabrics such as silks and velvets. The daughters, like all girls of similar standing at the time, were raised and prepared for advantageous marriages. It was either that or enter a convent. However, they were also educated to a high standard in languages, classics and philosophy along with their brothers, although Lucrezia was said to favour the arts and horse riding over the schoolroom.
Palazzo Vecchio at night
The eldest daughter Maria was betrothed to Alfonso d’Este, the dark, handsome son of the Duke of Ferrara but perhaps more notably the grandson of Lucrezia Borgia. Sadly, Maria died from malarial fever, aged only seventeen, before the wedding could take place, so Lucrezia at just twelve years old was offered in her place, despite being only half the age of her future husband. A marriage contract was drawn up in April 1558 and in July of that year Lucrezia and Alfonso were married. However, almost immediately after the marriage Alfonso went off to fight against the French leaving Lucrezia at home with her family in Florence for a further two years. Given her young age it was probably a good thing. She finally left to join her husband in Ferrara in February 1560, aged sixteen, only a couple of months after the death of her father-in-law. Alfonso was now the Duke of Ferrara and thus Lucrezia entered Ferrara as the new Duchess.
Maria de’ Medici, 1550 - 1551 Bronzino.
Sadly, Lucrezia’s new life as Duchess was short lived and only a year after her arrival, reports were sent back to her family that she was desperately ill suffering from weight loss, fever, constant coughing and recurring nosebleeds. Cosimo sent his own physician from Florence to tend to her, but to no avail. Lucrezia died aged just seventeen in April 1561. The official cause of death was ‘putrid fever’ or pulmonary tuberculosis but there were rumours soon after that she had been poisoned on the orders of her husband who was outraged that she hadn’t borne him a child, although there is no real evidence for this or for the tales of his callous and indifferent behaviour towards the young Lucrezia.
Nearly 300 years after Lucrezia’s death, inspired by the story of a poisoned Duchess, Robert Browning wrote My Last Duchess, a dramatic monologue in which the Duke Alfonso, following Lucrezia’s death, is showing off his art collection to a representative of the family of his prospective new wife. He draws back a curtain to reveal a portrait of a young woman, his late wife Lucrezia. He tells his visitor
“She had a heart – how shall I say? Too soon made glad”
implying this displeased him as it wasn’t only himself that made her smile and brought a blush to her cheek. He goes on to say
“I gave commands; then all the smiles stopped together”
so that we as readers are left to deduce that insanely jealous, he had ordered her death. He keeps her portrait behind a curtain so that she now only has a smile for him.
Inspired by the poem Maggie O’Farrell has used the idea of this portrait as the basis of the novel, weaving together a story of a rebellious young girl forced into marriage too young, to a man who grows to despise her. There are elements of fairy tale with a princess kept locked in a castle, a menagerie of fantastic beasts that Cosimo keeps in the basement of the Palazzo Vecchio, the handsome but cruel Duke, a gruff but kind hearted old nurse and even a pair of sisters – one good and one bad. And finally, a handsome prince, or in this case artist, who might just be our heroin’s salvation. It is a wonderful story inspired by a portrait that creates its own vivid picture with colourful prose.
A Medici lion, one of a pair flanking the Loggia de Lanzi, guarding the Piazza della Signoria
The portrait of Lucrezia that inspired the story is kept in the North Carolina Museum of Art. According to some experts it is by Bronzino, court painter to the Medici family who painted all the rich and famous in 16th century Florence, although others say it is the work of Allessandro Allori, Bronzino’s nephew and student. It was painted in 1560 for Lucrezia’s brother Francesco before Lucrezia left home to be married, just one year before her death. She is pictured wearing jewels of both the Medici and Este families, signifying the union between the two ruling families.
Oil on Panel 82 cm 63 cm from the school of Bronzino c 1560, a year before she died
Although portraits of several members of Lucrezia’s family all painted by Bronzino hang in a dedicated gallery in the Uffizi, (see images above) there are none of Lucrezia hanging with them.
Much as I loved the story, I also loved the idea of finding a portrait of Lucrezia but I had no plans to visit North Carolina any time soon. Although there are no portraits of Lucrezia hanging in the Uffizi, I discovered there is a smaller copy of the Bronzino painting kept in the Palazzo Pitti. So, during our trip to Florence last month, we booked a visit to the Pitti Palace. It is a vast luxurious building south of the river Arno, where there is room after room of paintings and portraits and the chance of finding Lucrezia seemed slim. In broken Italian I asked a guard, but she shook her head
“Non c’e nessun ritratto di Lucrezia”
but I was not to be deterred. I felt certain she was there and the guard was wrong. I scanned wall after wall of portraits and then I spotted her, just the size of a large book, tucked into a dark corner, almost hidden and badly in need of cleaning and restoration but it was without a doubt, Lucrezia, although a poor copy of the original. I risked setting off alarms and getting thrown out to get this shot, but it was worth it for having sought out my prize.
I wonder what book will be next to send me off on a mini adventure of discovery? Do you have any recommendations?
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I would like to thank everyone who sent messages of support, leaving comments, sending emails and even phoning after my post last week. It made a huge difference to how I was feeling and I’m now half way through Contented Dementia by Oliver James, recommended by more than one person. Already it has changed my approach and I can whole heartedly recommend it to anyone else currently living with or caring for a relative with dementia at any stage of this cruel disease.