Stories of high-born girls confined to castles, forced to marry young, and forced to have sons or die trying are the subject of dark fantasy on HBO these days.
Novelist Maggie O’Farrell approaches this scenario in a different, more psychological way, through the character of a real Italian Renaissance girl.
In his first novel since the charming “Hamnet,” which won a National Book Critics Circle Award and other awards, O’Farrell travels back to the 16th century once again to imagine the inner life of a character whose historical record is slim. but intriguing. .
In “Hamnet”, it was Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife. Here is Lucrezia de’ Medici, who died in suspicious circumstances in 1561 at just 16 years old. Although the official cause of death was illness, it was rumored that her husband of less than a year, Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, killed her.
This obscurity gives O’Farrell plenty of room to search for leaps in the historical record and create Hitchcockian suspense.
The Renaissance palaces and castellos depicted here have gorgeous sunny exteriors, but dark, heavy interiors. New ideas of art and commerce coexist with rigid social hierarchies and superstition.
Lucrezia was part of the most powerful family in Florence, the Medici. Being a girl, she lived a confined existence, unable to venture much beyond her apartments. (The dark, drab life inside the palace contrasts with the brilliance of the bustling piazza outside; a casual description is given of a statue the Medici placed outside their door – this is just the “David” by Michelangelo.)
Things slowly get even more claustrophobic after Lucrezia marries against her will.
The novel travels back and forth in time, starting with the day she comes to believe she will be murdered, and working back to her conception.
And though we’ve been told of her fate from the start, we come to believe that this teenage girl is up to the evil simmering in the palace courtyards around her. Observant and compassionate, Lucrezia is a stranger in this world.
She finds a certain freedom in nature and art. But although she is a gifted artist, no one sees any other future for her than as the wife of a powerful man.
O’Farrell cited Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess”, as inspiring his interest in this Renaissance story. The poem depicts a chilling image of Alfonso showing a stranger a portrait of his dead wife, which he keeps behind a curtain for only him to look at. O’Farrell found a real portrait of Lucrezia in a gallery in Florence, and it radiated intelligence and mystery.
The novel dwells on a technique popular in the Renaissance called “overpainting”, in which you apply the final layers of paint to an existing image, either covering it over or allowing the old and new images to merge. Lucrezia uses this practice frequently, just as she learns to hide beneath a formal, superficial surface.
Likewise, O’Farrell took a historic footnote – the death of a 16-year-old duchess – and added imaginative strokes that paint a different picture.