Beatrice Cenci (1577–1599) – a patricide absolved by Romans, commemorated by the city

Guido Reni or Elisabetta Sirani, alleged portrait of Beatrice Cenci

Guido Reni or Elisabetta Sirani, alleged portrait of Beatrice Cenci

We may wonder why we should recall the figure of a person accused of killing her own father, a girl, probably one of many, who was able to commit such a deed, when an assassination or a death in broad daylight were something of a daily occurrence in the city on the Tiber. However, the story of Beatrice Cenci is a kind of a morality play, in which good triumphs over evil, however, strange as it may seem, this victory brings neither cleansing nor comfort – just the opposite – a sense of injustice! The trial and execution of Beatrice Cenci had something spectacular in them, arousing such lively emotions in Roman citizens, that they lasted for centuries. Why? Perhaps, in a perfect way, they embodied the contradiction between sanctity and crime which had always existed here.

 

Guido Reni or Elisabetta Sirani, alleged portrait of Beatrice Cenci
Castle of the Holy Angel, initially Hadrian’s Mausoleum
Guido Reni or Elisabetta Sirani, alleged portrait of Beatrice Cenci, fragment, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini
The Death of St. Cecilia, Antonio Raggi, fragment, Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone
Portrait of Pope Clement VIII, Crisofano dell’Atlissimo, approx. 1600, Palazzo Colonna

We may wonder why we should recall the figure of a person accused of killing her own father, a girl, probably one of many, who was able to commit such a deed, when an assassination or a death in broad daylight were something of a daily occurrence in the city on the Tiber. However, the story of Beatrice Cenci is a kind of a morality play, in which good triumphs over evil, however, strange as it may seem, this victory brings neither cleansing nor comfort – just the opposite – a sense of injustice! The trial and execution of Beatrice Cenci had something spectacular in them, arousing such lively emotions in Roman citizens, that they lasted for centuries. Why? Perhaps, in a perfect way, they embodied the contradiction between sanctity and crime which had always existed here.

 

 

However, let us start at the beginning, by asking ourselves the question how did it come about that the outstanding Cenci family began experiencing such troubles. Beatrice’s grandfather was a treasurer of two popes, which provided him with a significant position in the city and an extensive fortune. The inheritor of this fortune was his son, Francesco Cenci, who was characterized by two traits – stinginess and violence. In times when “spending money like there is no tomorrow” was almost a doctrine of the wealthy families, the first of these traits caused his alienation among the Roman elites, ultimately leading to a lack of marriage perspectives for his descendants, the second was the direct cause of his death. The pompousness and lavish lifestyle were not only an evidence of vanity and hedonism, but for centuries a nursed form of establishing social bonds between members of the same class. Meeting and surrounding oneself with high-placed officials (mainly in the Roman Curia), was a condition sine qua non – it facilitated survival and paved the way for careers of children. An almost pathological stinginess of Francesco, his constant, ruining of the family treasury and troubles with the law led to him not ensuring his seven sons with a proper fortune. Some of them brought their cases to court, while two were killed in a fight, which to even a greater extent undermined the already damaged reputation of the family. He placed his daughter Beatrice in an equally hopeless situation, not guaranteeing her the appropriate position and dowry. Although, truth be told he did not allow her to be seen by men – his daughter and second wife were locked in a castle outside the borders of the State of the Church, where according to witnesses he beat, terrorized and intimidated both of them without any scruples. Moreover, Beatrice fell in love with the castle chamberlain Olimpio Calvetti, which further angered her father and worsened her situation.

Francesco constantly struggled with court accusations due to his violent character. He was also accused of a severe at that time crime – homosexualism, an accusation which was often and effectively used without any basis to undermine somebody’s reputation. The fines and court fees led Francesco into debt and the necessity to rent out his family palace in Rome, which also meant moving to the aforementioned family castle.

 

It can be said, that the situation of the Cenci family was bad indeed, while the frustration of the children and Francesco’s second wife was sizeable. Under such circumstances the third in a row conspiracy against the life of the husband and father was hatched, which included his son Giacomo and daughter Beatrice (children from his first marriage) as well as their step-mother and her son from the relationship with Francesco. The most active in the murder plot, were the aforementioned Olimpio Calvetti and the castle blacksmith. They killed Francesco, bashing his head in with a hammer, then, just to make sure, dropped the hated tyrant from the castle walls. It was the year 1598. After this brutal and shameful act the family rapidly organized a funeral for the husband and father and returned to Rome. There a year-long trial and imprisonment of the accused awaited them. Olimpio was killed even before the trial started by one of the Cenci family friends, however this did not accomplish much as during tortures the blacksmith Marzio confessed to how the murder occurred. In order to force the others to testify, they were also subject to tortures, which quickly confirmed the testimony of the main culprit. At that time nobody intervened on the behalf of the accused, nobody wanted to help them in attaining mercy or at least mitigating the sentence of Pope Clement VIII. The church tribunal, assuming that noble birth cannot be a factor in the judged deed, announced a triple condemning sentence – for Francesco’s children and wife.

The prisoners were led onto the execution site, which for centuries had been located at the foot of the Castle of the Holy Angel, through streets filled with onlookers. Throngs of Romans gathered to see off members of the Cenci family, including the beautiful Beatrice. Despite the fact, that she was found guilty the Roman populace felt for the young, sympathy-arousing girl, while a sense of justice conflicted with grief over her misfortune. The scenery brought memories of the last passage of early-Christian virgin martyrs so often recalled in Roman churches despite the reasons for their death being very different. The youthfulness and innocence of the prisoners were the greatest obstacle in keeping oblivious to their cruel fate. Even more so because the method of execution was simply barbaric – Beatrice and her step-mother were beheaded with a sword, while her brother Giacomo, was first tortured with hot thongs, killed with a hammer and then his body was cut into little pieces. As a warning the corpses of the executed were displayed to the public for 24 hours. Immediately afterwards the body of Beatrice was taken and with the people of Rome seeing her off, it was laid to rest in the Church of San Pietro in Montorio under the altar, as she had desired – in an unmarked grave. Day and night candles burned there, while people kept constant vigil. She was almost treated as a martyr. Fortunately the Roman populace, was quite quickly able to transfer its emotions to an equally beautiful and young, aristocratic girl, who was killed in a similar way and whose exceptionally preserved, fresh body was found in a miraculous way, less than a month after Beatrice’s execution. Under the main altar of the Church of Santa Cecilia on the Trastevere, St. Cecilia was discovered. One girl had just been buried under the altar and another had just arisen from underneath it.

 

After the execution, the fortune of Francesco Cenci was confiscated, then, most of it came into the possession of cardinal Aldobrandini – the nepot of Pope Clement VIII. This gave rise to protests from the remaining family members, as well as to displeasure of Romans in general, who to even a greater extent saw it as an injustice. Ultimately it also undermined the authority of the pope – the sword which he raised in the name of justice, turned against him for eternity, since Beatrice became one of the most popular figures in the city and she remains such until the present.

Beatrice’s fate and her death have since the very beginning inspired artists, who in an unambiguous way identified with her. The first evidence of this is the attributed to Guido Reni (but probably not of his doing), portrait (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica – Palazzo Barberini), which was reportedly created in prison. The painting depicts a girl, just as she was remembered by the Romans – beautiful, subtle and sad.

Beatrice achieved extensive popularity of international proportions in later centuries, especially during Romanticism, when she was portrayed to be a heroine struggling against terror and tyranny. Numerous literary (Shelley, Słowacki, Stendhal, Dumas, Moravia), musical and cinematic    works  were developed about her. Attention which was devoted to Beatrice in Rome, survived for centuries, all the way until the soldiers of Napoleon Bonaparte reached the city, carrying slogans of freedom and struggle against tyranny and church oppression. In 1798 the grave of Beatrice was desecrated by them, her corpse was taken out and all trace of it vanished.

The figure of Beatrice Cenci has survived in the minds of the Romans to such an extent that on the 400th anniversary of her death – September 11th 1999 the city authorities funded a commemorative plaque for the patricide, in the place of her imprisonment at via di Montserrato, where she was referred to as “an example of a victim of an unjust court”. That is how fickle life can be: a sentence considered by the pope as the most just, 400 years later turned out to be the most unjust.