Lila Alonso Limongi ’26 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
In 2020, every 11 minutes, a woman or girl was killed by their intimate partner or by someone in their family. There are no Instagram story posts, infographics or any other visual representation of this number that can possibly make it feel smaller than it is. Every 11 minutes means approximately 47,000 women and girls, murdered. Most likely in their own homes, by people they loved and trusted. Worst still is the fact that–despite there being little quantitative data to back this up—this phenomenon is not new.
Women, of course, do not need data. They have been receiving the same advice for generations, and it has been passed down through their mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers. It’s always “be careful,” and it’s always “watch out.”
In 1561, in such a common turn of fate, a woman was—allegedly—murdered by her husband. Her name was Lucrezia de Medici. She was the Duchess of Ferrara, and she was also sixteen years old. She was married at thirteen to twenty-five-year-old Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, in 1558. Their life together, while short, is the subject of the 355-page novel The Marriage Portrait, by Maggie O’Farrell, in which the author imagines de Medici’s up-bringing, her marriage, and her eventual murder at the hands of her husband. Although if the assassination was real is a historical mystery, O’Farrell takes the evidence at hand and twists it into a beautiful story on what hides beneath the surface.
O’Farrell opens the novel with a chilling historical note that details de Medici’s fate. “Less than a year [after their marriage],” it reads, “she would be dead.”. The following first chapter starts with a long string of sentences, taking you through the details of the setting of a table, only to then land another punch to the gut of the reader—“it comes to [de Medici] with a peculiar clarity, as if some coloured glass has been put in front of her eyes, or perhaps removed from them, that [her husband] intends to kill her.” Together, these two openers make the ending of the novel quite clear—de Medici will die. And, yet, O’Farrell manages to hold on to some surprises for her readers.
For the most part, this is due to the novel’s narrative framing device. O’Farrell sets the story up in two timelines—the present, in which de Medici is sitting at the dinner table with her husband, now certain that she will die, and the past, covering de Medici’s growing up and her eventual betrothal to d’Este. The crux of all this, and where these storylines converge, is the confection of de Medici’s marriage portrait. The title of the novel itself taunts the reader with the presence of this painting, which only appears close to the midway point, and, surprisingly, does not actually exist. Concurrently, the fact that de Medici will certainly die permeates the novel, as the reader scoots closer to the edge of their seat, waiting for the murder plot to begin.
The wait is long—the violence de Medici will face really only becomes crystal clear in the novel’s final chapters. O’Farrell, however, is able to maintain a tense atmosphere, even as she weaves through the slower parts of de Medici’s childhood and her betrothal.
But what the novel is really about is not the murder itself—as the ending shows—but the process of painting the portrait. De Medici is posed, prodded and ogled by her husband and the painters he has hired to make this picture. She is not in control of the representation they are making of her.
In fact, this is an exercise in dominance for d’Este. He is controlling what de Medici is, how she appears to the world, through this portrait. This is even more significant when read in conjunction with the information given in the beginning of the book—de Medici loves to paint. She has the skills to be the one to be making this representation of herself, and yet d’Este takes this from her.
O’Farrell’s motif of painting does not stop there—as her last chapter title reveals, the author is especially preoccupied with “the underpainting and the overpainting.”. During her childhood, de Medici discovers this technique, and becomes fascinated with it by the time she is married. It consists of painting a scene and then covering it with another, creating a recognizable texture. Actually revealing the hidden picture, however, can be complicated, and it usually remains a secret between the painter and their canvas.
De Medici’s fictional obsession with painting these types of pictures creates a gentle metaphor that permeates the novel. After all, her husband is much like her paintings. At first, de Medici is enchanted by him, considering him a kind and gentle man. After their first sexual encounter, however, her mind begins to change as she considers him more carefully. She understands that d’Este is committing an act of violence, and so this slowly lifts a veil from over her eyes. He is a violent man, who tortures the people around him, while maintaining an outward image of a benevolent Duke. There is an underpainting lurking beneath d’Este’s overpainting. Everything is not as it seems.
This notion weaves itself through the book delicately. Appropriately, it lurks quietly, waiting for the reader’s attention to take their time to untangle it. O’Farrell’s merits lie in this subtlety. Nothing is hammered in.
Subtle, too, is O’Farrell discussion of de Medici’s depersonalization. The disorder is recognizable by feelings of disconnect from one’s body, and people often describe watching themselves complete tasks from above. As de Medici’s environment grows more stressful, so do her depersonalization episodes. They first begin when d’Este first demands that they have sex, and is beautifully described by O’Farrell: “And with that breath comes a sensation like the weft and warp of fabric separating in two, and some part of her, the best part perhaps, answers the wind’s call. It shakes itself free. It gets up from the bed, leaving the bodies there, to do what they will, and moves away.”
Of course, it is impossible to tell the story of the femicide of a young girl without reaching into the territory of feminism. As with many writers before her, O’Farrell masterfully draws from history to rewrite a tale of a woman doomed. She finds power in de Medici, and in doing so honors her memory. She describes her as a woman who is strong, in the confines her society has given her, no matter how diminished she is by her husband. She is a tigress.
As she does so, O’Farrell manages to dodge critiques other works have not been lucky enough to avoid. The much-beloved Circe, by Madeline Miller, which also rewrites a story–this time, mythological–in order to imbue its women with some power, received many boos. Author Nick Alimonos, for instance, wrote that the novel is “so overtly anti-male,” and that “the men are always to blame.”
Although there are really only two men who are kind to de Medici throughout the novel, it would seem ridiculous to make that same claim about The Marriage Portrait. It does, of course, sound very out-there for anyone who has so much as touched a copy of Circe, as well, but The Marriage Portrait is so subtle in its critique, so tender in its feminism, that a comment like that would seem absurd. The Marriage Portrait is quiet in the way it gets its point across, but it’s that quietude itself that makes it such a compelling read. The book gives the reader the distinct feeling of wanting to throw it across the room and have a cry, so horrible and naturalized are the experiences de Medici goes through. And, of course, the twist of the knife comes when the book ends, and the reader is reminded, through a historical note, that this all happened to someone very real.
In the tenth track of his studio album Fear Fun, Father Misty Jones sings: “Try not to become too consumed/With what’s a criminal volume of oil that it takes to paint a portrait/The acrylic, the varnish, aluminum tubes filled with latex/The solvents and dye.” The song, of course, was not written for de Medici, and yet there are echoes of her in it. After all, how many thousand gold pieces were spent for the “criminal,” amount of oil that painted de Medici’s face? How much silver was spent to commission the painters she sat for? And yet, de Medici paid a much different price–she lost her ability to present herself on her own terms, to decide who she was. It is this that O’Farrell captures perfectly—how the robbery of de Medici’s identity developed more and more, until it became murder.