By all accounts, the short, sheltered life of Lucrezia di Cosimo de'Medici was not one you would have wanted to live. Born into wealth and power, she had neither. Married off at 13 to the fiancé of an older sister who died, she was dead herself by 16. Modern experts speculate the culprit was tuberculosis, not uncommon in 1561. Gossips came to a different conclusion: She was murdered by the Duke of Ferrara, her husband.

This dark supposition persisted long enough to inspire Robert Browning's 1842 poem "My Last Duchess," in which a lofty nobleman shows off his dead wife's portrait to the family member of a prospective bride. Now, Maggie O'Farrell has written her own version of Lucrezia's story, and — as you might expect from the author of "Hamnet" — she has spun pure gold out of this tragic history.

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2021, "Hamnet" offered a new perspective on a boy in rural 16th-century England whose life and death inspired his grieving playwright father to create one of the most enduring works of all time. Like "Hamnet," "The Marriage Portrait" builds a rich interior world while vividly re-creating an era, in this case the Italian Renaissance, a period overflowing with intrigue and pomp, rustling heavy fabrics and glowing frescoes, blood and lust and the desire for power.

O'Farrell takes a few liberties with the story, adjusting Lucrezia's age and other realities. Lucrezia is 15, for example, on her wedding day, still small enough to feel imprisoned by her enormous gown, a harbinger of what's to come.

A strange child, fifth in a line of eight — her mother's nickname is "La Fecundissima" — Lucrezia learns quickly, whether she is studying Greek history, drawing perspective on a page or practicing the subtle art of manipulation. Wildness fascinates her. When her father brings a tigress to his zoo in the bowels of their Florentine palace, she is mesmerized by the beast, certain an understanding passes between them.

That tiger, who dies in her underground prison, haunts the novel, as Lucrezia, caught in her own gilded cage, discovers the truth about her enigmatic new husband. She endures what she loathes: sitting for a marriage portrait, the invasive act designed to produce an heir. When no heir materializes, fear creeps in.

And yet she's aware of an unfurling within. She feels "the rise of what she thinks of as her spirit — the unfettered part of herself to which no one, not even she, has access. It lives somewhere deep inside her, under the layers of costly palazzo clothes, mostly hibernating, as if under a covering of leaves, until called into action. Then it might uncurl, crawl out in to the light, blinking, bristling, furling its filthy fists and opening its jagged red mouth."

That mouth, those fists, that ferocity! These are the gifts, O'Farrell suggests, that Lucrezia can use to survive this hard world. May they serve us well, too.

Connie Ogle is a writer in Florida.

The Marriage Portrait

By: Maggie O'Farrell.

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 448 pages, $28.