Beatrice Cenci – In History, Literature, and Art
Beatrice Cenci is one of the most tragic figures of all time. She was abused and tormented; when she retaliated, she was arrested and killed. She was the victim of an unjust world, and she has now been almost completely forgotten. But there are a few stories and works of art to remind us of her pain.
Beatrice Cenci was born on February 6, 1577. Her father was Francesco Cenci (1527-1598). The name of her mother is unknown. Francesco was an extremely dark person. He had an enormous sexual appetite and was widely known to have killed several people (but was never charged as he was able to pay off public officials). Beatrice’s mother, his first wife, died, presumably of natural causes, after giving birth to seven children.
The Children of Francesco Cenci
Died in infancy
Executed for murder
Assassinated for unknown, but presumably political reasons
Assassinated under similar, yet unconnected, circumstances as his brother
Elder sister, name unknown
Obtained a good marriage after petitioning the Pope. Year of death unknown
Executed for murder
Sold into slavery, later freed. Year of death unknown
Despite Francesco Cenci’s reputation, there is no evidence he was responsible for the assassinations of his sons. He did not, however, express any sorrow once they were gone. Francesco was an absolute tyrant in his house and was known for his violent physical abuse of his servants, his children, and his second wife, Lucrezia Petroni. During one of his arrests, his children begged the public and church officials to keep him behind bars. The bribe money, however, was more interesting than suffering young people. Francesco was released and felt he had yet another reason to treat his children violently.
His temper soon flared even more when his eldest daughter took a petition directly to the Pope, asking to be allowed to escape her home by entering a convent. The Pope, Clement VIII, took it on himself to arrange a good marriage for her and even cornered Francesco Cenci into giving her a dowry. No one could have known that this simple act would set in motion a hellish series of events.
After being overruled in this one case, Francesco chose to take his anger out on his family, most particularly on his remaining daughter. He sent his wife, Beatrice, and his young son Bernardo to the family castle in Petrella Salto. Francesco spent a lot of time in Rome and Naples, but often came down to his castle, where he sometimes kept Beatrice locked up alone. During his visits, he would violently abuse the members of his household. After awhile, he began regularly raping Beatrice.
The Cenci family, which at that stage was made up of stepmother Lucrezia, adult Giacomo, Beatrice, and the 12 year old Bernardo, was at their wits end. Francesco’s advanced age of 71 had done nothing to calm his abusive nature. Although his family had the sympathy of the neighbors, they could expect no help from the civil authorities. So the Cenci family began looking for another way to solve their problem.
Had you ever heard of Beatrice Cenci?
Beatrice, reportedly a beautiful young woman, eventually attracted the attention of a man about whom practically nothing is known; his name was Monsignor Guerra. He started coming to Petrella Salto whenever he knew Francesco would be gone. God knows his reason for coming, but Lucrezia and Beatrice begged him to help them somehow. He agreed and helped them concoct a plan for killing Francesco.
Giacomo at least was involved in the conspiracy, as were two servants named Marzio and Olimpio. The original plan was to hire a group of banditti and make the death look like an common roadside incident. Something went wrong, however, so the family turned to a more violent means: Beatrice, most likely while being sexually assaulted, drugged her father. After this, it is unclear how many people were involved. However, the evening ended with Francesco Cenci’s head being completely bashed in. Lucrezia and Beatrice wrapped his body in bed sheets so they could move him through the castle without leaving a trail of blood. They threw him over a balcony and made his death look like an accident.
At first, it appeared they got away with the crime. The locals believed the story and for several months the remaining members of the Cenci family enjoyed absolute peace. But then things started to go wrong: Francesco’s political and business partners in the city began to wonder about his prolonged absence. The police arrested all the household servants. Eventually, the conspirators were given away by the castle laundress. Beatrice had claimed that the bed sheets had become soiled by her menstrual cycle. However, it was in fact quite obvious that something else had gone on.
Bernardo Cenci and all the conspirators were arrested – with the exception of Monsignor Guerra, who disappeared from the country. Marzio was killed while being tortured in prison. The other members of the plot confessed - that is, all but Beatrice. Supposedly, she refused to admit her guilt, although everyone knew of her involvement. There was hope they would all be pardoned because of the extenuating circumstances of the case, particularly as the public was in favor of what they had done. A petition was sent to Pope Clement; he was on the point of granting their request, when another murder took place among the Roman aristocracy: a countess was killed for no reason other than that her son wanted his inheritance. Pope Clement, known for being a rather strict ruler, began to think granting mercy to the Cenci family would set a precedent. He forgot any pity he had felt for the family and signed their death warrants.
On September 11, 1599, the remaining murders of Francesco Cenci were executed outside the Castel Sant’Angelo prison. Bernardo, because of his age and because of doubts regarding his involvement in the crime, was spared. However, he was forced to watch his family die and was later sold as a slave. After awhile, he was pardoned and released, but it is unknown how or when his life ended.
Beatrice Cenci was known to be the victim. Spectators were greatly upset by her execution and she has since been considered a sympathetic figure who was denied justice.
Beatrice Cenci in Literature
Beatrice Cenci and the crime she was involved in has been the inspiration for quite a few literary works. The most famous is a five act play of Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Cenci, although not particularly well known, is a surprisingly accurate – though slightly melodramatic – portrayal of the Cenci saga. The family’s story is also the subject of some extremely obscure works by Alexandre Dumas, père, and Stendhal. The spirit of Beatrice Cenci was the inspiration for two particularly beautiful stories: The Marble Faun, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and The Bride of Lindorf by Letita E. Landon.
The Marble Faun, a story about young artists in Rome, makes use of the Beatrice Cenci painting (shown above). Hilda, one of the novel’s characters, is known for making beautiful copies of the painting. An allegory of Beatrice and her crime is later created by Hilda’s friend, Miriam. Miriam’s culpability and Hilda’s changing view of her are the main parts of the novel.
On me and mine has rested a fearful curse! I married one whose beauty let that picture now opposite to me attest, and her heart was even lovelier than her face. An Italian artist painted her as Beatrice Cenci: he said that the costume suited her so well. I have since thought it an omen that we should have chosen the semblance of one so ill-fated.
- Letitia E. Landon’s The Bride of Lindorf
The Bride of Lindorf, a rare prose story written by a now unknown 19th century poet, is a gothic romance about the “mad woman in the attic”. A young man named Ernest is attracted to a mysterious girl because she resembles the painting of Beatrice Cenci. As he discovers the dark secrets in her family, the girl’s father tells him that his wife had modeled for the painting. This is purely a fictional, but nonetheless, stunning creation.
The Painting Dispute
For years, the “famous” painting of Beatrice Cenci was attributed to the Italian Baroque master Guido Reni (1575-1642). Many people probably thought, given his age, that he may in fact have witnessed her trial and execution. The painting, however, was later analyzed and the general consensus now is that it is not the work of Guido Reni.
There was some speculation that it may have been painted by Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) – a woman who, oddly enough, shares Reni’s tomb. However, there is no evidence the painting is her work either. In fact, the origins of the painting are so obscure that it is possible that the subject may not be Beatrice Cenci. However, this work will never be separated from the Italian tragedy.
Beatrice Cenci is the subject of several other works of art, the most notable being a statue by Harriet Goodhue Hosmer (1830-1908). In all honesty, this statue looks more like the martyrdom of St. Cecelia than the execution of Beatrice. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful work and can be seen in the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
Questions & Answers
© 2013 LastRoseofSummer2