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A new novel honors the forgotten — and possibly murdered — Lucrezia de Medici

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Maggie O'Farrell's last novel, "Hamnet," blew me away. It is the story of the only son of William Shakespeare about whom little is known. And O'Farrell set out to imagine who he was, how he died, and whether Hamnet's short life might have inspired one of his father's greatest plays. Well, her new novel takes on a different time and place, Renaissance Italy, but it also centres on a real person about whom little is known and whose young life was also cut short. It is titled "The Marriage Portrait," and it opens with the following three-sentence historical note.

MAGGIE O'FARRELL: (Reading) In 1560, 15-year-old Lucrezia de Cosimo de Medici left Florence to begin her married life with Alfonso II, d'Este Duke of Ferrara. Less than a year later, she would be dead. The official cause of her death was given as putrid fever, but it was rumored that she had been murdered by her husband.

KELLY: That is the author Maggie O'Farrell reading, and she is with us now. Welcome. I'm so glad to speak with you again.

O'FARRELL: It's so nice to be back. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So those scant details that you just told us constitute pretty much all we know from the official historical record, which meant you had all kinds of running room for your imagination. And you imagine her as quite a wild spirit. How did you come to realize the fuller character that appears in the pages of this novel?

O'FARRELL: Well, I think it's no coincidence that the writing of this novel was pretty much bookended by the pandemic. And I don't think it's a coincidence that a lot of the novel is about constraint and lack of choice. So Lucrezia was married off to Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara, in a kind of politically advantageous union for her father. You know, she was sold for - I think, something around the amount of 50 million pounds. That was her dowry.

KELLY: Right.

O'FARRELL: And also, I realized in my research that her parents - so her father, Cosimo de Medici, and her mother, Eleanor, quite unusually educated their daughters alongside their sons. So Lucrezia and her two sisters, they would be highly intelligent, erudite, well-read young women. And I just thought, you know, obviously their destiny is to make this union for their families. But, you know, all that education and intelligence and reading, it doesn't disappear. You know, there needs to be some kind of outlet for it. So I imagine that Lucrezia might have been a painter. And also, let's not forget that the Medicis she's had hanging on the walls of the palazzos, you know, the original Botticelli, you know, they had "The Birth Of Venus." And I was thinking, what must have been like to have, you know, have had "The Birth Of Venus" basically in your living room?

KELLY: There's a scene early in the novel where I felt like I was starting to get to know her. It involves a tiger that lives, as they do, in the basement of the Palazzo, where the dad, Cosimo de Medici, has a private zoo. Describe it and why you wanted that scene.

O'FARRELL: Well, actually, strangely enough, that was the first thing I ever wrote about Lucrezia. And in a sense, it was my way into her character. And I just read that Cosimo had kept this menagerie of exotic animals in the basement of the Palazzo. So I was just - and Renaissance art is filled with lions. There are so many lions in Renaissance art, but very, very few tigers. And I think that's because they'd never actually seen one. So the chapter is entitled The First Tiger In Tuscany, and Lucrezia catches a glimpse of it and really wants to see it herself. And so she goes down, she escapes down to the basement late at night. And she puts her hand through the bow of the cage to touch the tiger. And I - it was just my first image of her as this very little, very determined girl.

KELLY: For a Medici, Princess Lucrezia has not had the happiest childhood. Her parents, her siblings could be quite cold. She acquired survival skills, which you then have her deploy to survive her marriage. I wonder if you would read for us the scene where we see some of the skills being deployed. This is where her new husband's best friend, Leonelo (ph), is not showing her the respect that he might.

O'FARRELL: (Reading) Lucrezia does what she always does in situations such as this. She did not grow up with four older siblings who continually put her down, kept her in her place, excluded, teased and belittled her and learned nothing. The dynamic he is hoping to create is as familiar to her as the shape of her own fingernails. She is expert at dodging such invisible blows. How are you, cousin? She murmurs. She will not raise her voice to him any louder than this. If he wishes to hear her, let him bend down from his saddle. I see you have been successful in your hunt.

KELLY: It seems to capture her so perfectly. I read it and thought, this is a 15-year-old girl. She is still a child. And I absolutely - I wouldn't want to mess with her. Good luck to Leonelo.

O'FARRELL: (Laughter).

KELLY: Is that an accurate reading, I suppose, is what I'm asking?

O'FARRELL: I think so, yes. I mean, I had to kind of re-read the age she was. You know, 15 is so young. And he - her husband, Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara, was 27. And he had only been duke for less than a year. His father had died the previous year. So Alfonso is having to assert his might. He's having to show everybody that he can do this job, that he's absolutely up to the task of being ruler. And so Lucrezia arrives in this place. She's incredibly young. She has no allies. She doesn't know any of them. And she's got to try and cope. She's got to get used to being married and also to assert her position as duchess of Ferrara.

KELLY: I read an interview you gave to the Times of London in which you describe Ferrara's cruelty to his sisters, and how you read about this and thought, OK, the gloves are off, Alfonso. Explain.

O'FARRELL: Well, at the beginning of, you know, beginning of the process of writing the book, you know, there are some historians that believe that Alfonso murdered Lucrezia. And there are others who say that he didn't, that she died of natural causes, possibly of pulmonary tuberculosis. And I think at the beginning, I wanted to be quite evenhanded. I thought, you know, I must give this man the benefit of the doubt. And then I read about this situation where one of Alfonso's sisters, he discovers that she's having an affair with the head of the guardsman in the castello. And this is absolute historical record. In fact, Alfonso is very proud of this. In order to show to everybody that this was not to be tolerated, he sentenced the man to be strangled to death. And he forced his sister to watch. And this just, you know, absolutely made my blood run cold. I thought, well, this man is more than capable of having killed Lucrezia, so I'm going to run with that interpretation of history.

KELLY: You made a pilgrimage to the real Lucrezia's tomb.

O'FARRELL: I did.

KELLY: Where is it? What did you find?

O'FARRELL: Well, she is buried along with the other Este family in a monastery in the south of Ferrara city. And I got to Italy just as the travel restrictions were lifting. And the monastery was completely shut. So I rang this huge kind of iron bell that I had to pull from this really impressive house. And the nuns came to the door. And I had to explain them in my not-very-good Italian what I wanted to do. And we had this slight back-and-forth. And then they said to me, nobody has ever asked to see her tomb. And that really broke my heart. So I had taken flowers, and I put them on her grave. And I'm not ashamed to say I did have a little bit of a cry because it was just - I mean, who knows what the nuns thought.

(LAUGHTER)

O'FARRELL: This slightly kind of possessed woman was incredibly hot in the Italian heat bursting in and saying, I really want to see this grave and then crying. But I felt - it was so sad to know that she was there, that actual - her bones were under that stone on the floor, but nobody had ever wanted to see them.

KELLY: Maggie O'Farrell, thank you.

O'FARRELL: That's my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

KELLY: Maggie O'Farrell talking about her new novel, "The Marriage Portrait." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.