How art and poetry inspired Maggie O'Farrell's new novel

A book cover and a picture of the author.
Maggie O’Farrell’s book “Hamnet” won worldwide acclaim when it was published in 2021. Her new novel, “The Marriage Portrait,” also imagines the life of a little-known figure who lived during the Renaissance – only this time, her subject is a young girl who died shortly after she married an Italian duke.
Author image by Murdo Macleod | Book cover courtesy of Penguin Random House

Lucrezia de’ Medici was only 13 when she was forced to marry Alfonso II d’Estej, the Duke of Ferrara; just 15 when she joined the court of her new husband. By age 16, she was dead. Only her officials portraits survive her.

Many years later, Robert Browning wrote a poem based on one of those paintings, which loosely fictionalizes the short marriage of Lucrezia and the possibility that she was murdered by her husband. Maggie O’Farrell goes one step further, and imagines the young girl’s whole life, including the short time she spent as a wife in 16th century Italy.

In O’Farrell’s new novel, “The Marriage Portrait,” Lucrezia knows her sole job is to produce an heir for the duke. But when no heir is forthcoming, and the duke grows increasingly unsatisfied, she worries that he might kill her to make way for someone more fertile. Could she be right? Or is her bored and quick mind simply connecting dots that aren’t there?

The Marriage Portrait” deftly tells Lucrezia’s story through her own lens and perspective. This week, on Big Books and Bold Ideas, MPR News host Kerri Miller spoke with O’Farrell about what inspired her to write the novel, why even her villains are complex, and how she intends to give women silenced by history their voice back.

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