The tragic tale of Beatrice Cenci

The tragic tale of Beatrice Cenci

Beatrice Cenci was a Roman noblewoman who killed her abusive father, Count Francesco Cenci. She was condemned and beheaded for the crime on 11 September 1599. Her murder trial in Rome and the subsequent judgement by the Pope to execute her created an enduring legend in the popular imagination. She became a symbol to the people of Rome of resistance to the arrogant nobility which could not be punished by the courts. Her death gave rise to a ghost story that every year on the night before the anniversary of her execution, she comes back to the bridge where she died, carrying her own severed head.

She was born on 6 February 1577 as the fourth child and second daughter to Ersilia Santacroce and Count Francesco Cenci. Her mother died when she was 7 in 1584. Any hopes Beatrice had of escaping her father’s control by marrying out of the family like her older sister Antonina were crushed by Francesco’s determination to keep her under his control, like her stepmother Lucrezia Petroni, her elder brother Giacomo and her younger brother Bernardo – the only son from the Count’s second marriage. It is said that the Count’s cruelty and dissolute nature was well known throughout Rome. His notorious reputation had often gotten him into trouble with the Church but his position as a wealthy nobleman got him out of any problems as well. As a result, he had many enemies in Rome. He was recorded to have vowed often to outlive all his children and his wife and many rumours surrounded him – including rumours of him having committed incest with Beatrice raping her and of having a hand in the death of at least one of his sons. After a dinner party in which he was said to have rejoiced in the death of his sons in Spain to bandits, Beatrice attempted to appeal to his guests to save her family from the Count, but they all decided to leave instead – too afraid of his cruel and dangerous reputation to take the chance. Beatrice is even said to have attempted to appeal to the Pope – but she got her appeal back unread. As a result of Beatrice attempting to lay out a complaint against the Count, she and her stepmother were sent into exile away from Rome to a castle La Rocca at a small village in the Abuzzi mountains that they owned, at La Petralla del Salto whose catellano or butler in charge of the castle was Olimpio Cavalleti, Beatrice’s lover.

Beatrice, Giacomo, Bernardo and Lucrezia decided to kill Count Francesco with the help of Olimpio and his friend Marzio Catalano. They first attempted to do so via poison but failed. In the end, Olimpio killed him using a hammer and they threw him down a balcony to make it appear as if he fell. Unfortunately, they were too hurried with the burial of the body and made inept attempts to cover up the murder. An ally of the Cenci’s, Mario Guerrera, got Olimpio killed but the papal police found and arrested Marzio. They tortured and interrogated him and found out about the murder. As a result, all four members of the Cenci family were arrested and sentenced to death. They were tortured and interrogated and apart from Beatrice all confessed. The members of the public found out about the reasons for the crime and protested against the decision of the tribunal. However, Pope Clement VII, fearing a spate of familial murders for financial gain, decided to show no mercy.

Giacomo was tortured brutally; his head was smashed by a mallet and his corpse was then quartered. Lucrezia and Beatrice were then beheaded with a small axe on the scaffold. Owing to his young age, Bernardo was spared but he was forced to witness the executions, had his properties confiscated and was then condemned to be a galley slave for the rest of his life. However, he was released after a year. Beatrice was buried in the Church of San Pietro in Montorio.

The supposed portrait of Beatrice Cenci by Guido Reni has resulted in a great legend being created around this pitiful 17-year-old virgin who was assaulted by her father and when she dared to take revenge was executed. But she never even gave in to torture. This romantic image is in the popular imagination and has given rise to many works of art such as The Cenci: A Tragedy in Five Acts by P.B. Shelley, The Cenci by Alexandre Dumas Sr., Nemesis a tragedy written by Alfred Noble and the Italian film Beatrice Cenci (1969) directed by Lucio Fulci.

In reality, it is said to be more likely that the charges of incest were fabricated, and Beatrice Cenci was a late-twenties woman who had a child with her paramour Olimpio. However, it is likely that Count Francesco was as vile a person as assumed. So while she is perhaps not a white lotus, she was still deserving of clemency if not acquittal.