The Marriage Portrait: the historic-fiction novel’s ending, explained

The Marriage Portrait

Maggie O’Farrell’s 2022 novel, The Marriage Portrait is a historical-fictional account of Lucrezia de Medici, Duchess of Ferrara- dead within a year of her marriage.

The novel starts with Lucrezia sitting with her husband for dinner and mulling over the realization that he wants to murder her.

The article contains spoilers.

A wise, young, fiery princess

Born to Cosimo I de Medici and Eleanor of Toledo in Florence, Lucrezia is described as a troublesome child. Rebellious, intuitive, wise beyond years. She was educated and had a keen interest in drawing. She was empathic and kind-hearted.

When she turns 13, and the eldest sister, Maria, betrothed to Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, dies of illness. In her place, Lucrezia is asked by Alfonso to be made his bride. The man is almost 10 years her senior, with a reign troubled because of no apparent successor.

A marriage, an obligation, a longing

Lucrezia is reluctant- Alfonso’s older, she’s still a child. But aged 16, she is married off to Alfonso and they go to Ferrara. But instead of the castle, they live at a villa for some months. Lucrezia is expected to submit to the sexual advances of Alfonso, even though she detaches herself from the act.

The court has some issues and Alfonso strictly keeps Lucrezia out of it. She’s alone a lot when he goes to court. She is sort of happy there. But not when she meets Leonello Baldassare, Alfonso’s close friend- almost cousin. She finds him evil, disapproving.

When they do go to the court, Lucrezia is welcomed with splendour by Alfonso’s sister- Elisabetta and Nunciata. One warm, the other standoffish. They all expect an heir from this marriage.

Commissioning of the marriage portrait

Soon after, Lucrezia’s marriage portrait is commissioned by Alfonso to Il Bastianino and his apprentices- Jacopo (probably dumb and deaf) and Maurizio (his friend). She forms an unlikely friendship with both and some invisible connection with Jacopo- who’s life she’d saved from his seizure.

The portrait’s work goes on for long, revisions and changes- all the while there’s no news of heir. Alfonso goes for work for a while and Lucrezia spends her free time walking, roaming and being stressed because of certain incidents when Alfonso isn’t the caring, loving guy he presented himself as. She picks up on his cruelty.

A physician’s medicines and fateful trip

Since there’s no heir till now, Alfonso is frustrated. He calls for a physician who says the Duchess might be too warm of spirit and body. She’s given a strict diet of cold foods, rest, taken her paints and leisure stuff away to facilitate conception- but to no avail. She grows weaker by the day.

Suddenly, Alfonso proposes a trip to the countryside to help her get better. This is to his Fortezza, a building which imposes. Between the short chapters that cut in between the past, we get to know Lucrezia’s present state in those- unwell, sick and without her trusted maid. She belives the dinner he made her eat was poisoned.

But the maid comes sneaking, having been told to stay back, confirming Lucrezia’s suspicion of being murdered. The maid, Emilia, is close to Lucrezia’s age and her features. She’s her milk sister too, a loyal aid.

The desolate state of Lucrezia

Her maid Emilia comes with the painter, who’s anxious to get paid for the finished portrait. Lucrezia doesn’t want to give Alfonso the satisfaction of finding her dead so she goes to the dining hall. All are shocked to see her. She is shown her portrait- her spirits captured perfectly. She knows this was done by Jacopo.

Just as everyone leaves, Jacopo warns her she’s in danger and needs to escape and he’ll be waiting for her in the woods. He speaks in the Neapolitan dialect, which her nurses used to speak. She goes to her room, weak and lies in the bed with Emilia holding and comforting her.

The ending- what happens to Lucrezia?

Lucrezia wakes of hunger in night and goes to the kitchen in Emilia’s clothes. She sees the door which Jacopo has rigged. She goes out.

Meanwhile, Alfonso and Leonello go to her chambers and seeing a figure in bed, strangle her mercilessly, suffocating her. The figure is dead and the next morning, the duchess’ death is lamented by maids who haven’t seen her alive.

Alfonso plays the part of grieving husband and the mishappen face of the duchess is beyond recognition- because of illness, they presume.

The last chapter shows how Lucrezia ran, hoping Jacopo to be waiting. She talks of going to another country, living her life happily and content. A painter is sought after, small animal paintings. There are underpaintings under those depicting scenes entirely different, with a common element.

A girl looking on sideways, in every painting.

On it’s accuracy, author Maggie O’Farrell tells The Seattle Times: “I’ve taken every biographical detail I possibly can about these people, and around them, I’ve embroidered a novel. There are facts in the book, but most of it is made-up.”