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Beatrice Cenci, victim, murderer and proto-feminist icon in 1599 in Rome

21st Apr 2018

The Tragic Life of Beatrice Cenci: Feminism and Violence in Renaissance Rome

In an unremarkable room of one of Rome’s most overlooked museums hangs a small painting-scarcely two feet tall-that from its present setting one would never guess was once one of the most famous faces in Italian art. Like the Mona Lisa, it depicts a young woman gazing enigmatically at the viewer, and, just as Leonardo’s image is today instantly recognizable, two hundred years ago it possessed the status of an icon. The subject of this painting, now virtually forgotten by the general public, was a figure associated with the purest innocence and the most depraved cruelty, whose sensational trial and controversial execution inspired both public outcry and Romantic poetry: the tragically beautiful and beautifully tragic Beatrice Cenci.

Beatrice’s fate - now more legend than history - is part legal drama and part horror story. It involves sexual violence, justifiable vengeance and alleged incest within one of the leading families of Rome. Its cast of characters includes hired henchmen, wealthy noblemen and even the Pope, in addition to the beguiling figure (femme fatale or innocent victim?) of Beatrice herself. Her imprisonment and conviction attracted such wild attention that she has been called the O.J. Simpson of the Renaissance, but the obscene details of her story may appear closer to those of a sixteenth century Josef Fritzl.

 

The Cenci: one of Rome’s most notorious families

Beatrice was born into one of the most ruthless of the powerful families who fought for control of medieval Rome. Although Pope John X (914-28) was a Cenci, the family earned a reputation for fighting against the papacy, allegedly in the pay of external forces. In 1075, one Cenci kidnapped Pope Gregory VII just as he was performing mass at the altar of Santa Maria Maggiore; in 1398 another member of the family organized a plot to overthrow the papacy and murder Boniface IX. By the 1500s, their power and significance had decreased, but their notoriety was to reach its peak with their cruelest member: Francesco Cenci, Beatrice’s father.

Francesco had inherited a sizeable fortune, as well as the family’s sprawling complex of minor palaces on the edge of the Jewish Ghetto–only a short walk from Castel Sant’Angelo, where his daughter would one day be imprisoned and later executed. Rumors swarmed around Francesco, of his savage treatment of his servants and of the abuse he foisted on his family members. Beatrice’s elder sister, Antonina, felt so terrorized by their father that she appealed to the Pope to allow her either to be married off or to join a nunnery–anything to escape her sadistic father. Several times he was accused of raping young women, one of whom he is alleged to have had killed after she refused his advances. 

As Beatrice came of age, it was clear that she was a great beauty, full of grace and elegance despite the rough character of her family life. At the same time, Francesco was falling afoul of the papal authorities and found it convenient to get out of Rome, taking up residence in a crumbling castle in a small countryside town. He brought with him only his wife and a few servants, leaving most of his dozen offspring to their own devices; the only exception was Beatrice. Ostensibly this was to protect the young beauty from the advances of Roman men, but many historians think Francesco may have had more vulgar intentions. In any case, Beatrice and her mother were shut in the castle, where they lived under virtual house arrest.

 

MURDER MOST FOUL .......

 

On the morning of 9 September 1598, Plautilla Calvetti, the housekeeper of the Cenci castle and wife of its caretaker, was down in the village when she heard a loud commotion. When she rushed outside to see what was going on, a friend called to her: “Plautilla, Plautilla, they are screaming in the castle.” Rushing up the steep dirt-road towards the castle, she saw Beatrice Cenci looking down from one of the windows; Plautilla called up to her but received no response. The young girl was staring into the distance, utterly silent, unlike her mother, whose frantic screams could be heard echoing inside the castle walls. As she continued up the road she met some men rushing down; “Signor Francesco è morto,” they told here: Count Francesco was dead.

His mangled corpse had been found in a wooded thicket at the base of the castle where the residents dumped their rubbish. Above, at the top story of the fortress, a wooden balcony had given way; the Count had fallen over forty feet to his death. An accident, so it seemed, but as ladders and ropes were gathered to recover the body, questions began to arise: the hole in the balcony was too small, and seems to have been deliberately forced; the corpse was suspiciously cold. When the body was washed clean the truth became clear: large, jagged wounds covered Francesco’s temples, one large enough for a servant-girl to ghoulishly stick her finger inside. These could only have been the result of a violent blow; the Count had been murdered.

The criminal investigation, conducted by the Neapolitan authorities who controlled the region, uncovered the truth. Lucrezia, the long suffering wife, had given Francesco a sleeping-potion, and after he had passed out signalled for two male accomplices. They entered his room where, despite the drug, the Count awoke. They struggled with him, held him down, and smashed his head in with a hammer and chisel. Dumping his body over the wall into the thicket, they then broke apart the balcony to make it look like an accident. One of the two murderers was a hired hitman, the other none other than Olimpio Calvetti, caretaker of the castle and husband of Plautilla the housekeeper. He was also, it later emerged, the lover of the victim’s daughter Beatrice.

 

... OR VENGEANCE MOST JUST ?

 

Beatrice and her mother were taken into custody; it was they, apparently, who were the real masterminds of the murder. They young Beatrice, it was alleged, had grown tired of her confinement, conspired with her mother and seduced the caretaker to enlist his help. We will never know what motivated Olimpio Calvetti; he died on the run, caught by a bounty-hunter who chopped off his head with a hatchet. The other hitman also didn’t make it to the end of the trial, dying under torture in a papal prison. The trial of Beatrice and her mother lasted a full year, during which time the young girl never admitted her guilt, even under torture.

The case of the Cenci murder was the talk of the Rome. Given the details of the case and the evidence gathered, it seemed undeniable that Francesco’s wife and daughter had had a hand in his death, and this was the most loathsome of crimes. For a child to turn against her father was a deep betrayal that upset the fundamental order and morality of Italian society; an example must be made. At the same time, however, other details emerged that made Beatrice a more sympathetic character. The Count had locked her in the castle, it was claimed, not to protect her from unwanted sexual advances but to make her vulnerable to his own. After enduring months of sexual abuse from her own father, how could anyone deny the girl her justice?

 

Public opinion in Rome swayed in her favor, but ultimately the papal court ruled that, whatever the moral justice of Beatrice’s revenge, legal justice must be done: murder is murder. On 10 September 1599, on the banks of the river Tiber just outside the Castel Sant’Angelo, Beatrice Cenci and her mother were publicly beheaded. She approached the executioner’s block with the utmost dignity and succeeded in impressing the large throng who had gathered with her still intact beauty. One witness recorded, “The death of they young girl, who was of very beautiful presence and of most beautiful life, has moved all Rome to compassion.” 

 

Beatrice Cenci from female idol to feminist icon

One witness to the execution, it is claimed, was the painter Guido Reni, who painted the portrait of Beatrice that still hangs in the galleries of the Palazzo Barberini. An old legend has it that the artist was able to visit her in prison, but a more likely story maintains that he based his painting on a glimpse he caught of her as she made her way to her death through the streets of Rome. Indeed, the image of the young woman has a momentary quality to it, suggesting a fleeting instance and the woeful character of a young life cut tragically short.

It was this depiction of Beatrice that shaped her image in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Seeing it for the first time in 1818, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley declared that it possessed “a simplicity and dignity which, united with her exquisite loveliness and deep sorrow, are inexpressibly pathetic.” He was inspired by Guido Reni’s painting and Beatrice’s story to write a play based on the murder and her sad life, contrasting the sweetness and grace of Beatrice with the disgusting events that surrounded her.

The painting, however, has since Shelley’s day had something of an identity crisis; its attribution to Guido Reni (who in any case was unlikely to have been in Rome while Beatrice was still alive) has become contested. So too, has the identification of its subject; the turban and drapery of the young girl are the attributes of a Sibyl, one of the female prophets of the ancient world. Of course, the artist–whoever they were–may have chosen to depict Beatrice in the costume of a Sibyl, but it’s also possible that only long after the fact was this image associated with the story of Beatrice.

She too, has had something of an identity crisis. In Shelley’s telling, Beatrice is a victim, a blameless innocent whose virtues somehow remained intact despite the most violent and depraved suffering. More recently, however, she has been reappraised not as a passive victim but as a proto-feminist heroine, a young woman whose brave act of murder was a justifiable response to the rape and violence she had suffered at the hands of her own father and the sixteenth century patriarchy. In this re-interpretation of her story, we should be thinking of an image not like the doe-eyed beauty of the painting, but rather of something closer to Uma Thurman’s character from Tarantino’s Kill Bill.

Although doubts have been cast on the “portrait” of Beatrice Cenci, another painting in the same museum can still claim a direct connection with our heroine. Although it seems impossible that Guido Reni could have attended her execution, another artist was almost certainly there: the great painter Caravaggio. He, it has been argued, had a prime view for her beheading by the Tiber, and bore witness to both her dignity in the face of death and the gruesomeness of the act itself.  

Scholars have detected both of these qualities in a painting Caravaggio completed only a couple years after Beatrice’s death: Judith and Holofernes. Here, the biblical heroine is beautiful but not innocent as she murders the evil Holofernes in his sleep (echoes of the Cenci story!) The anatomical details and the spurting blood seem drawn from direct observation. Caravaggio’s femme fatale has a strength and a deliberateness missing in “Reni’s” portrait. Perhaps we find encoded here another sixteenth-century impression of Beatrice, not blameless but justified, not powerless victim but resolute heroine. In this reading, Beatrice Cenci represents not only a reminder of the ubiquity of male sexual violence throughout history, but a rallying cry to take up arms against it.

Beatrice Cenci is just one of the many tragic and inspiring characters you’ll hear about on our Secret Rome Tour. You can see her alleged portrait, as well as Judith and Holofernes, in the museum of Palazzo Barberini.