Elizabeth Loupas isn’t the first writer to be inspired by the marital mysteries surrounding the shadowy 16th century Duke of Ferrara... English poet Robert Browning got there first.
His darkly satirical poem, My Last Duchess, was born from popular rumour that Alfonso d’Este, grandson of the notorious Lucrezia Borgia no less, may well have murdered his flirtatious first wife.
But what of the Italian duke’s second wife, Archduchess Barbara of Austria, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, who was noted for her long, ‘horse-like’ Habsburg face rather than her youthful beauty?
Loupas makes a return visit to the magnificent splendours of the Italian Renaissance to bring us this sumptuous, wickedly entertaining and compelling reimagining of the woman who bravely, and some would say recklessly, stepped into the shoes of a duchess whose death created a storm of speculation.
Refusing to be sidetracked by Browning’s ‘Victorian sensibilities,’ Loupas places the duke and his Ferrarese court firmly back in the 16th century where pride and possessiveness were very recognisable traits in a Renaissance prince.
And in the midst of all this shining opulence, she conjures up the seductive story of a plain, pragmatic duchess – a far cry from the fairytale beautiful princess – as she is cast adrift in a scheming palace where a word or a smile out of place can spell the difference between life and death.
By her own admission, Barbara of Austria is neither young nor beautiful. But she is quick-witted and practical and, unmarried at the age of 26, she is also desperately in need of a husband.
Just as she is about to be packed off to a convent, like her sisters before her, she seizes what seems to be her last chance – a proposal of marriage from Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. He is clever, handsome, powerful... and widely believed to have murdered his first wife, Lucrezia de’ Medici.
Despite the rumours, Barbara agrees to marry him because this is her last chance to have her own establishment away from her brother’s court and to escape the convent where she would be buried for the rest of her life.
She goes into her marriage clear-eyed and fascinated by her dangerous, enigmatic husband but she soon learns that the court of Ferrara is like ‘a love-apple, beautiful and rosy-red and alluring to the senses, but poisonous, so poisonous...’
Alfonso, proud, intelligent and cultured, admires Barbara’s poise and breeding, her self-assurance and her intellect but as he finds his new wife increasingly driven to discover what really happened to his first duchess, his courtly charms turn to menace and threats.
And watching over them all is his first wife Lucrezia, a restless spirit caught between life and death, whose past life is revealed as Barbara’s present life unfolds. Two women, two wives, both in search of the truth...
Time and place spring vividly to life in Loupas’s dazzling story which puts the complex relationship between Barbara and the enigmatic Alfonso at its core. The element of mystery over the death of the first duchess, and the use of a dual commentary by both wives, provide an extra layer of intrigue and suspense while making the plight of both women palpably real.
Loupas’s impressive and well-researched evocation of the 16th century’s overriding concern with religion and superstition also give authentic ballast to a delightfully entertaining story.
Rich, dazzling and dangerous, The Second Duchess is ideal for fans of historical romance.
(Preface, paperback, £12.99)