Did you know that women were destroyed in 1500s Italy?

Lucrezia is only fifteen in this portrait, but she could be forty. This portrait, painted either by Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572) or his protegé Alessandro Allori (1535-1607) forms the basis of the book cover for Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait.

While many readers found that the circumstances of Lucrezia’s marriage “did not sit well with them” there was nothing particularly unusual about it, as described in Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel THE MARRIAGE PORTRAIT.

Although hard to imagine in this day and age, it was quite common for high-born girls to be married off to men who were old enough to be their fathers. 

Why were these girls (some barely into their teens) married off to much older men?

One reason seems to be that older men had time to establish themselves and become rich enough to afford a wife and family. 

Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara (1533-1597). Married three times, he never had children. His first wife was Lucrezia de’ Medici. He is a main character in Maggie O’Farrell’s The Wedding Portrait.

Another is because they were someone that the girl’s father liked, respected, or trusted. Often, they were her father’s friends. (My own grandmother married someone who was 28 years older than she, a banking colleague of her father.)

In THE MARRIAGE PORTRAIT we are talking about two people who were actually much closer in age than that. It is true that Lucrezia de’ Medici, born in 1545, was only 13 when she was married off in 1558. However, her husband, Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara was actually only 24 at the time of their marriage, being born at the end of 1533. Thus there was only an 11 year age difference, not unusual for the time, and actually not that unusual even for today.

Why were these girls married off so young?

Partly it was because of law and custom. While doing research for my first novel Thwarted Queen, set in 1400s England, I was horrified to discover that the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages decreed that the “age of consent” for girls was twelve

By the 1560s, which is when THE MARRIAGE PORTRAIT is set, attitudes about child brides had changed somewhat. It was no longer common for babies to be betrothed. Nor were child brides under the age of puberty, as had been common in the 1400s. At thirteen, Lucrezia was just old enough to have become a woman. 

Both of these portraits were painted by either by Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572) or his protegé Alessadro Allori (1535-1607.

The other reason was because of money. These dynastic marriages were not unlike bank mergers today, involving huge transfers of land and money. Lucrezia’s father Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, paid the enormous sum of 200,000 scudi ~ equivalent to about 57 million dollars today ~ for his 13-year-old daughter’s dowry. By insisting that the marriage take place as soon as was decently possible, Lucrezia’s in-laws could secure that fortune for themselves now.

Child Abuse in 1500s Italy

As Maggie O’Farrell so movingly depicts in this beautifully written novel, the plight of these child brides was not a happy one. These hot-house girls, brought up in a cage of their parent’s (usually mother’s) devising, were hustled away from the only home they’d known to be thrown into bed (literally) with a stranger.

Like pawns on a chessboard, these girls had no control over their lives, their choice of husband or their bodies. They were at the mercy of their in-laws. They almost never saw their family of origin again. Instead, barely into their teens, they had to endure hostile courts, dysfunctional in-laws and bullying husbands.

It was a situation ripe for abuse.

Wife Murder in 1500s Italy

As Maggie O’Farrell points out in her Author’s Note, wife murder was not that uncommon. In real life, both Lucrezia’s sister Isabella (1542-1576) and her sister-in-law Dianora di Toledo (1553-1576) died unexpectedly ~ within days of each other. Isabella’s death occurred while she was “washing her hair.” However, many whispered that she’d been strangled by her husband. Dianora was “strangled by a dog-leash,” also at the hands of her husband. Both women had been accused of adultery.

I won’t tell you how this novel ends so as not to spoil it for those of you who have not yet experienced it. I will only say that as Lucrezia jumps off the castle ramparts the ending spirals up from the perilous reality of 1560s Italy into a Fantasy Fairytale. 5 stars. 

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