Maggie O’Farrell, the bestselling author of “Hamnet,” takes on the scandal-filled royal courts of Renaissance Italy in her new novel, “The Marriage Portrait,” which follows the short life and suspicious death of Lucrezia de’ Medici. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Who was Lucrezia de’ Medici and what drew you to telling her story?
Lucrezia was the fifth child of Cosimo de’ Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany, and his wife, Eleanor de’ Toledo. She was their youngest daughter and was married off very early. She was betrothed at 12, and she started her married life at the age of 15. She was a stand-in bride for her older sister, Maria, who sadly died just before she was due to get married to Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara. So, young Lucrezia was ushered in in her place.
There’s not a huge amount known about her, really. We know when she was born, we know when she moved to Ferrara, and we know that a year later she was dead. There were rumors at the time that her husband had poisoned her. Some historians think she was poisoned, and some historians think she died of natural causes, but either way, she died within a year of marriage and rumors about her death have circulated ever since, mostly because of the very famous poem by Robert Browning, “My Last Duchess.”
I’ve always loved the poem, and I only really recently investigated whether or not it was based on real people. I discovered that Lucrezia was indeed real, and as soon as I saw her portrait, I knew I wanted to write about her. She looks so worried and apprehensive. She looks as though she has a story to tell, and I wanted to imagine the story she might have told had she been given the chance.
Your last book, “Hamnet,” is, among many other things, about the life of Shakespeare’s young son before he died. “The Marriage Portrait” follows Lucrezia’s short childhood, as well as her marriage and death, which both occurred while she was still a teenager. Are the experiences of children something you’re especially interested in writing about?
I suppose what interests me is the story behind the story. It’s the people whose history is, in a sense, written in water. That’s a motif that runs through the book, the idea of the underpainting. There are these incredibly famous Renaissance masterpieces that we all know so well like the Mona Lisa, and if you X-ray the painting, behind her incredibly famous enigmatic expression, there are other iterations, other versions of the expression that da Vinci tried out before settling on the final one. I think history is like that. We see the surface, but behind the surface and behind the known and famous stories of various battles and marriages and rules, are all these other narratives.
That’s why I wanted to illuminate Lucrezia’s life. I feel that she’s been forgotten by history. All that really remains of her is one portrait and it’s in a really, really distant room, very low down on the wall in a gallery in Florence. Also, some of the most important characters of this novel are the servants. Sophia, the nurse, and Jacobo, the apprentice, and her handmaiden, Amelia. These people have a lot of knowledge and this underground web of gossip and information of all that goes on behind the scenes. But they are nameless in history.
How do you feel knowing that your novels may play a significant part in the way that figures like Hamnet Shakespeare and Lucrezia de’ Medici are understood by future generations?
Ultimately, I hope readers understand that this is fiction. 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. I think readers are certainly intelligent enough to realize that. Hamnet Shakespeare makes brief appearances in his father’s biographies, but Lucrezia is barely mentioned at all. There are biographies written about her sister, Isabella. She was quite well-known as an art patron.
When I started writing, I wanted to be evenhanded with Lucrezia’s husband, Alfonso. I wasn’t sure that he poisoned her and I needed to be open to the idea that he didn’t and was perhaps wrongfully accused. But during my research, I discovered that an event I write about in the book, where he discovered his sister is having an affair, is a documented fact. He was quite proud of it actually, because it sent a message to potential enemies. As soon as I read that, I thought that this is the act of a psychopath. And at that point, my feelings towards Alfonso changed and the gloves were off. Even if he didn’t kill her, he was probably more than capable of it.
Isabella was murdered by her husband, as was their cousin. It’s not as if the idea of uxoricide was unknown in that world. If your wife annoyed you, or for whatever reason, you could just do away with her. Since you were the lawmaker, you could do whatever you wished. That horrified me so much and I came down very strongly on the side that Lucrezia was murdered, although we couldn’t possibly find out now. But I do know that relations between the Ferrara and the Florentine court, which had been amicable when they were married, took a bit of turn. Alfonso stationed a spy in the Florentine court, which I think is an interesting detail. He was clearly worried.
What was your research like for this novel?
There is no shortage of books about Renaissance Italy. And when travel restrictions were lifted a year ago, I went to Florence and Ferrara and did a lot of footwork. I took lots of notes and loads of photographs there. But I also did things during lockdown to help me sort of inhabit Lucrezia’s life as much as I could. I ordered lots of pigment and ground it up with a pestle and mortar. I mixed it with linseed oil and I practiced painting with it, as she would have. I wanted to understand how that felt. I made a massive mess.
Do you feel a different responsibility when you write characters that actually existed as opposed to characters you make up entirely?
Absolutely. You’ve always got to remember that these people were real and that their bones are lying in a churchyard in Stratford or in a tomb in Ferrara. You have to be sensitive about that. My rule always is that even if I find something in my research that’s a bit inconvenient for whatever narrative I’ve decided to tell, I can’t just ignore it.
Last year, I arranged for Hamnet and Judith to have a memorial in the graveyard in Stratford-upon-Avon. I felt I owed it to them. We planted two trees for them and there’s a plaque each for them. It was so emotional. And the vicar did this incredible address, and we had a whole memorial service. It was really, really an amazing experience.