Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, February 6, 2015

Beatrice Cenci: Murder and Memory

Beatrice Cenci (born 6 February 1577)

In 1599, the twenty-two-year-old Beatrice Cenci was executed in Rome. Along with her stepmother, she was beheaded for her involvement in the murder of her father, Francesco Cenci; her elder brother was executed by quartering (another brother was forced to witness the execution of his family, but he was too young to be executed).

A "portrait" of Beatrice Cenci,
attributed to Elisabetta Sirani
There is no dispute about what had led to Francesco Cenci's murder by members of his own family--he was a violent man who had long brutalized the members of his household. His behavior was well known--he had been investigated, arrested, tried, and even convicted for various crimes of sexual violence.

In 1595, Francesco Cenci had left Rome, taking his second wife, Lucrezia, and Beatrice to a remote castle north of Rome, where he imprisoned the two women. 

Evidence shows that, by 1597, the two women were plotting against Francesco--but their plan was to escape from him, not to murder him. Beatrice desperately appealed for help to her brother and other influential relatives, detailing the women's plight, but her father learned of her accusations. His response was to whip Beatrice--and there is some evidence that he may also have raped her.

While the exact depth of Francesco Cenci's depravity is subject to debate, Beatrice's role in the conspiracy to murder her father is clear. At first she denied her guilt, a denial she persisted in even after torture. But eventually she confessed, as did her stepmother and brothers. Despite protest by the people of Rome, and an appeal for mercy to Pope Clement VII, the executions were carried out on 11 September 1599.

And then the "legend" of Beatrice Cenci began. Her life--and death--have been the subject of many retellings, most famously in Percy Bysshe Shelley's nineteenth-century verse drama The Cenci: A Tragedy in Five Acts. (To read Shelley's play, click here.) There are lyric poems, novels, operas, and films. 

For those interested in the story of Beatrice Cenci, I recommend Belinda Jack's Beatrice's Spell: The Enduring Legend of Beatrice Cenci.

The origins of the image of Beatrice Cenci, reproduced above, are mysterious, and Jack notes that it wasn't until "some point" in the eighteenth century that this "portrait 'became' Beatrice." The portrait was at once time attributed to Guido Reni (1575-1642), but is now widely believed to have been painted by Elisabetta Sirani. It hangs in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

This plaque in Rome commemorates Beatrice Cenci's death: "From here, where the prison of Corte Savella once stood, on 11 September 1599 Beatrice Cenci was taken to the scaffold, an exemplary victim of an unjust justice."