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Beatrice CENCI





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - Incest - Abuse
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: September 9, 1598
Date of birth: February 6, 1577
Victim profile: Francesco Cenci (her father)
Method of murder: Beating with a hammer
Location: Rome, Italy
Status: Executed by beheading with a sword on September 11, 1599
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Beatrice Cenci (6 February 1577 – 11 September 1599) was an Italian noblewoman. She is famous as the protagonist in a lurid murder trial in Rome.

Beatrice was the daughter of Francesco Cenci, an aristocrat who, due to his violent temper and immoral behaviour, had found himself in trouble with papal justice more than once. They lived in Rome in the rione Regola, in the Palazzo Cenci, built over the ruins of a medieval fortified palace at the edge of Rome's Jewish ghetto. Together with them lived also Beatrice's elder brother Giacomo, Francesco's second wife, Lucrezia Petroni, and Bernardo, the young boy born from Francesco's second marriage. Among their other possessions there was a castle, La Rocca of Petrella Salto, a small village near Rieti, north of Rome.


According to the legend, Francesco Cenci abused his wife and his sons, and had reached the point of committing incest with Beatrice. He had been jailed for other crimes, but thanks to the leniency with which the nobles were treated, he had been freed early.

Beatrice had tried to inform the authorities about the frequent mistreatments, but nothing had happened, although everybody in Rome knew what kind of person her father was. When he found out that his daughter had reported against him, he sent Beatrice and Lucrezia away from Rome, to live in the family's country castle. The four Cenci decided they had no alternative but to try to get rid of Francesco, and all together organised a plot.

In 1598, during one of Francesco's stays at the castle, two vassals (one of whom had become Beatrice's secret lover) helped them to drug the man, but this failed to kill Francesco. Following this Beatrice, her siblings and step mother bludgeoned Francesco to death with a hammer and threw the body off a balcony to make it look like an accident. However, no one believed the death to be accidental.

Somehow his absence was noticed, and the papal police tried to find out what had happened. Beatrice's lover was tortured, and died without revealing the truth. Meanwhile a family friend, who was aware of the murder, ordered the killing of the second vassal, to avoid any risk. The plot was discovered all the same and the four members of the Cenci family were arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to death.

The common people of Rome, knowing the reasons for the murder, protested against the tribunal's decision, obtaining a short postponement of the execution. However, Pope Clement VIII, fearing a spate of familial murders (the Countess of Santa Croce had recently been murdered by her son for financial gain), showed no mercy at all. On 11 September 1599, at dawn, they were taken to Sant'Angelo Bridge, where the scaffold was usually built.

In the cart to the scaffold, Giacomo was subjected to continual torture. On reaching the scaffold his head was smashed with a mallet. His corpse was then quartered. The public spectacle continued with the executions of first Lucrezia and finally Beatrice; both took their turns on the block, to be beheaded with a sword. Only the 12-year-old, Bernardino, was spared, yet he too was led to the scaffold and forced to witness the execution of his relatives, before returning to prison and having his properties confiscated (to be given to the pope's own family). It had been decreed that Bernadino should then become a galley slave for the remainder of his life; however, he was released a year later.

Beatrice was buried in the church of San Pietro in Montorio. For the people of Rome she became a symbol of resistance against the arrogant aristocracy and a legend arose: every year on the night before her death, she came back to the bridge carrying her severed head.


Screaming in the Castle: The Case of Beatrice Cenci

By Charles Nicholl

Beatrice Cenci was – to take a sample of sound-bites over the centuries – a ‘goddess of beauty’, a ‘fallen angel’, a ‘most pure damsel’. She was also a convicted murderer. This is a charismatic combination, not least here in Italy, and her name has lived on, especially in Rome, where she was born and where she was executed in 1599.

The story as it comes down to us has the compactness of legend. It tells of a beautiful teenage girl who kills her brutal father to protect her virtue from his incestuous advances; who resists interrogation and torture with unswerving courage; and who goes to her execution unrepentant, and borne along on a wave of popular sympathy. There have been many literary treatments of the story, the most famous of which is Shelley’s verse-drama, The Cenci, written in 1819. Other writers drawn to the subject include Stendhal, Dickens, Artaud and Alberto Moravia. The appeal of the story is partly lurid – a pungent mix of Renaissance sex and violence; a sense of dark deeds behind the closed doors of a prominent Roman family. It affords a glimpse, in Shelley’s words, of ‘the most dark and secret caverns of the human heart’. There is also the ethical conundrum it poses, its puzzle of legal guilt v. moral innocence. At the end of Moravia’s play, Beatrice Cenci (1958), she tells her prosecutors: ‘Accuse me if you wish, but I am innocent … According to your justice you will certainly be able to prove that I am guilty of my father’s death. But you will never be able to prove that I am not at the same time innocent according to another justice – a justice which you cannot know, still less administer.’ The beautiful murderer, the innocent sinner: La Cenci has cast her spell on the imagination – especially on a certain kind of male imagination – and it is with some difficulty that one digs back through the silt of literary sentiment to the event itself, which took place four hundred years ago, in the precipitous little village of La Petrella del Salto, in the foothills of the Abruzzi mountains a hundred kilometres north-east of Rome.

Sometime after seven o’clock on the morning of 9 September 1598, a woman called Plautilla Calvetti was combing flax in her house at La Petrella. She heard a confused clamour outside – ‘shouted words that I could not understand’. She hurried out into the street. Someone she knew called to her: ‘Plautilla, Plautilla, they are screaming in the castle!’

The castle stood up on a steep crag above the village. It was known as La Rocca, and certainly today its stubby ruins, overgrown with broom and elder, look more like an outcrop of rock than the remains of a building. It was then the kind of rough-hewn, strategically placed fortress-cum-country-house that a very wealthy and very dodgy Roman nobleman might choose to hole up in when things got a bit hot – both climatically and figuratively – down in Rome. This was broadly the case with the current tenants of the building: Count Francesco Cenci, a 52-year-old Roman around whom accusations of corruption and violence clustered like summer flies; his second wife, Lucrezia; and his youngest daughter, Beatrice. The two women were essentially prisoners in the castle, slaves to the Count’s brutality, paranoia, and – if the rumours were to be believed – sexual abuse.

Plautilla knew the castle, and its secrets, rather better than most in the village. Her husband Olimpio was the castellano, or manager of the castle, and she, too, worked there as a housekeeper. This was why the villagers were here at her house, shouting that something was wrong – even wronger than usual – up at La Rocca. Olimpio was absent, however.

Plautilla ran straight away up the steep track to the castle, ‘with one slipper on and one slipper off’. She saw Beatrice Cenci looking down at her from one of the windows. She called up to her: ‘Signora, what is the matter?’ Beatrice did not answer. She was clearly distraught but ‘strangely silent’, unlike her stepmother Lucrezia, who could be heard screaming inside the castle.

Some men came hurrying down the track. As they passed Plautilla they told her: ‘Signor Francesco e morto.’ The infamous Count Cenci was dead. His body was lying in what was called the ‘warren’, a dense patch of scrub below the castle rock which was used as a refuse tip. It appeared he had fallen from the wooden balcony that ran around the upper storey of the castle. There was a drop of six canne (about thirteen metres) into the warren. Part of the balcony had collapsed: one could see splintered wood, though the gap looked small for the bulky Count to have fallen through.

Ladders were fetched. Three or four of the men climbed down the ‘wilderness wall’ and into the warren. They confirmed that Cenci was dead – despite his fall having been broken by the branches of an elder tree. Indeed, the body was already cold to the touch, suggesting death had occurred some hours before. It was hauled up with great difficulty, roped to one of the ladders, and on this improvised stretcher it was carried to the castle pool, down below the outer gate. A crowd of villagers had gathered, among them three priests. They stared at the mortal remains of the great Count Cenci. His face and head were matted with blood; his costly casacca or gown of camel’s hair was torn and befouled with the rubbish of the warren: a ‘miserable rag’.

It was during the washing of the body, at the castle pool, that questions started to be raised. As they rinsed the blood off the Count’s raddled face, they found three wounds on the side of his head. Two were on the right temple, the larger one ‘a finger long’. The deepest and ugliest wound was near the right eye. One of the women deputed to wash the body, whose name was Dorotea, made irreverent comments about the dead man. She thrust her forefinger into the wound with grisly relish. One of the priests, Don Scossa, later said: ‘I could not look at it any longer.’ Porzia Catalano, another onlooker, said: ‘I turned my eyes aside so I didn’t have to look, because it frightened me.’

It was not the ghoulish jesting of Dorotea that struck the priests, however, so much as the nature of the wounds. How far their statements were shaped by later knowledge we do not know, but the priests who witnessed the washing of the body all claimed to have recognised instantly that the wounds on Cenci’s head had been made not by a fall from the balcony but by a violent blow with a sharp instrument. They thought they had been ‘made with a cutting tool like a hatchet’ or with a ‘pointed iron’, or possibly with a stiletto. One of the priests, Don Tomassini, also noted a deep bruise on the Count’s arm, above the left wrist. Thus, even before the dead man’s eyes had been closed (or rather, as Don Scosso pedantically noted, ‘the left eye, for the right eye was completely destroyed by the wound’); even before the body, clad in a fresh shirt and laid on sheets and cushions from the castle linen-chest, had been carried down the twisting lane to the village church of Santa Maria which was to be its resting-place, it was already suspected that Count Cenci’s death was not an accident but a case of murder.

Standing on the site of the castle pool four centuries later, assisted by the conventions of the Hammer horror-movie which this story often resembles, one envisages that moment of dawning recognition, when the assembled villagers fall silent, and their eyes slowly turn back up to the forbidding silhouette of La Rocca, to the ‘strangely silent’ figure of Beatrice at the window.

This brief account, based on statements by witnesses, catches at least something of the reality of the Cenci murder. It is a local event, as all historical events are to begin with; a sudden noisy intrusion into the routines of a late summer morning in La Petrella. This is the event before the dust has settled. Thereafter it becomes progressively distorted by various kinds of partisanship – the police investigation, the extraction of confessions, the hectorings of the trial, the blanket cruelties of the verdict – and then by the obscuring draperies of legend.

The investigation – by the Neapolitan authorities, who controlled the province of Abruzzo Ulteriore – was thorough and even ardent defenders of Beatrice do not dispute its basic findings. Count Cenci had indeed been murdered, horribly. While he slept, drugged by a sleeping draught prepared by Lucrezia, two men had entered his bedroom. Despite the drug it seems he awoke. One of the men held him down – the bruise on the wrist which Don Tomassino spotted – while the other placed an iron spike against his head and drove it in with a hammer. The two slighter wounds on the Count’s head were probably botched blows before the coup de grâce smashed home. They then dressed the body, humped it to the edge of the balcony and threw it down into the warren. Leaving a half-hearted hole in the balcony floor to make it look like an accident, and a mass of ‘scene of the crime’ evidence – blood-soaked sheets and the rest – to show that it wasn’t, they rode off into the night.

The two men were Olimpio Calvetti – the trusted castellano of La Rocca, the husband of Plautilla and, it later transpired, the lover of Beatrice – and a hired accomplice, Marzio Catalano, a.k.a. Marzio da Fiorani. These were the murderers of Count Cenci, but they were really only hit-men. The true architects of the murder were the Count’s immediate family: Lucrezia and Beatrice, his long-suffering wife and daughter; and his eldest surviving son, Giacomo. The latter was actually in Rome when it happened, but his extensive confessions provided the bulk of the case against them. Beatrice was said to have been the most implacable of the conspirators, the one who urged the assassins on when they baulked at the last moment. She, however, refused to confess, even under torture.

The judicial process lasted exactly a year, during which time both of the murderers died. Olimpio Calvetti, on the run in the Abruzzi hills – we shift from Hammer Horror to Spaghetti Western here – had his head sliced off with a hatchet by a bounty-hunter. Marzio Catalano died under torture in the interrogation rooms of the Tordinona Prison in Rome. On 10 September 1599, Giacomo, Beatrice and Lucrezia Cenci were executed outside the Castel Sant’Angelo on the banks of the Tiber. Giacomo’s death was protracted – he was drawn through the streets on a cart, his flesh mutilated with heated pincers, his head smashed with a sledge-hammer, his body quartered – but the two women walked to their death ‘unbound and in mourning garments’ and were ‘cleanly’ beheaded. A not entirely trustworthy account of the execution adds that Lucrezia had difficulty settling at the block because of the largeness of her breasts. A fourth Cenci, Bernardo, too young to be actively involved, was forced to watch the killing of his kin and was despatched to the galleys thereafter.

The affair was a cause célèbre, which echoed briefly through the newsletters of the day: ‘The death of the young girl, who was of very beautiful presence and of most beautiful life, has moved all Rome to compassion’; ‘She was 17 and very beautiful’; ‘She was very valorous’ at her death, unlike her stepmother, who was a ‘rag’.

The bald facts of the case do not go very far in explaining the passionate interest it has aroused, which has little to do with the actual murder of Count Cenci: on that, posterity’s verdict is a simple ‘good riddance’. It is rather the particular quality – real or imagined – of the person who has become the protagonist, the star, of the story: Beatrice Cenci. Though there was undoubtedly a continuous knowledge of the case from the late 16th century onwards, the legend of Beatrice Cenci is essentially a Romantic construct whose origin can be found in a long and highly-coloured account by the historian Ludovico Antonio Muratori, in his 12-volume chronicle, Annali d’Italia, published in the 1740s. This popular book brought the case to a new generation of Italian readers, and when Shelley arrived in Rome in 1819 he found that ‘the story of the Cenci was a subject not to be mentioned in Italian society without awakening a deep and breathless interest.’ For Beatrice herself, he added, ‘the company never failed to incline to a romantic pity’ and a ‘passionate exculpation’ for the crime she had committed.

Shelley almost certainly knew Muratori’s version and may also have known an early dramatisation by the obscure and prolific Florentine playwright Vincenzo Pieracci (1760-1824), but the only source he mentions in the Introduction to his play is a mysterious ‘old manuscript’, which he describes as ‘copied from the archives of the Cenci Palace in Rome’ and ‘communicated’ to him by a friend. Mary Shelley also mentions this manuscript in her later notes on the play, though exactly what it was, and how much Shelley’s historical errors or re-workings were taken from it, is unclear. His version of the murder itself, for instance, is strangely sanitised: the Count is strangled by Olimpio, ‘that there might be no blood’. This accords rather better with his idealisation of Beatrice than the messy reality of the murder.

Shelley’s poetic heroine, agonising between the impossible alternatives of incest and parricide in tones that sometimes recall Isabella in Measure for Measure, is the exemplar of the Romantic Beatrice and ushers in a parade of doomed heroines in prose works by Stendhal (Les Cenci, 1839), Niccolini (Beatrice Cenci, 1844), Guerrazzi (Beatrice Cenci, 1853) – the latter a work of almost unbearable treacliness – together with shorter essays or treatments by the elder Dumas and Swinburne. In the 20th century the legend has persisted – a film (Beatrice Cenci, 1909) directed by the Italian Expressionist director Mario Caserini; a ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ version, Les Cenci, by Antonin Artaud, first performed in Paris in 1934, with Artaud in the role of the wicked Count; and Alberto Moravia’s wordy, Anouilhesque play, Beatrice Cenci (1958).

Then there is oral tradition. A typical synoptic version of the story runs: ‘her father dishonoured her, and in revenge she killed him by stabbing a silver pin into his ear’ (Carlo Merkel, Due Leggende intorno a Beatrice Cenci, 1893). Another, recorded in La Petrella in the Twenties by Corrado Ricci, describes her torture: ‘they hung her up by her yellow hair, which reached to her knees.’ This finds its way into Artaud’s play: ‘From the ceiling of the stage a wheel is revolving on its invisible axis. Beatrice, attached to the wheel by her hair, is urged on by a guard who grips her wrists behind her back.’

These literary or anecdotal aspects of the legend are closely connected with a visual aspect: the supposed portrait of Beatrice by Guido Reni, which shows a beautiful young girl with brown hair and wide, lustrous eyes. According to tradition – scrupulously nurtured by all the 19th-century writers on the subject – the portrait was taken from the life during Beatrice’s imprisonment, in late 1598 or 1599. An alternative tradition, taking into account the unlikeliness of the unknown Guido being able to visit her in the Corte Sevella prison, says it was based on a glimpse the artist had of her in the street as she went to her death. Shelley saw it in 1818, in the Palazzo Colunna in Rome, and described the face as ‘one of the loveliest specimens of the workmanship of Nature’:

There is a fixed and pale composure upon the features; she seems sad and stricken down in spirit, yet the despair thus expressed is lightened by the patience of gentleness … The lips have that permanent meaning of imagination and sensibility which her suffering has not repressed … Her eyes, which we are told were remarkable for their vivacity, are swollen with weeping and lustreless, but beautifully tender and serene. In the whole mien there is a simplicity and dignity which, united with her exquisite loveliness and deep sorrow, are inexpressibly pathetic.

The portrait was, in Mary Shelley’s view, the spark which ignited the poet’s interest – Beatrice’s ‘beauty cast the reflection of its own grace over her appalling story; Shelley’s imagination became strangely excited’.

A few years later, the expatriate French novelist and flâneur Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, was similarly moved, seeing in the portrait ‘a poor girl of 16 who has only just surrendered to despair. The face is sweet and beautiful, the expression very gentle, the eyes extremely large; they have the astonished air of a person who has just been surprised at the very moment of shedding scalding tears.’ Dickens found it ‘a picture almost impossible to be forgotten’, full of ‘transcendent sweetness’ and ‘beautiful sorrow’. In her face ‘there is a something shining out, that haunts me. I see it now, as I see this paper, or my pen’ (Pictures from Italy, 1846). Nathaniel Hawthorne, meanwhile, found the picture ‘the very saddest ever painted or conceived: it involves an unfathomable depth of sorrow.’ It is ‘infinitely heartbreaking to meet her glance … She is a fallen angel – fallen and yet sinless’ (Transformations, 1858).

Despite these plangent and heavyweight endorsements, it is almost certain that the face in the portrait has nothing at all to do with Beatrice Cenci. Guido Reni, a Bolognese by birth, is not known to have painted in Rome before 1608, nine years after her death. In its visual imagery – particularly the turban-like drapery – the portrait is more likely to be a representation of one of the Sibyls. (There is a turbanned Cumaean Sibyl by Guido Reni at the Uffizi.) The girl’s extreme youth suggests she is the Samian Sybil, sometimes referred to in classical sources as a puella.

The earliest connection of the portrait with Beatrice appears to be in a catalogue of paintings owned by the Colonna family, compiled in 1783 – ‘Item 847. Picture of a head. Portrait believed to be of the Cenci girl. Artist unknown.’ In documentary terms this identification, itself tentative, belongs to the late 18th century, to the time of the upsurge of interest in La Cenci arising from the account in Muratori’s Annales. It is not too cynical to suggest that her name was appended to the picture to lend it a spurious glamour. This seems to have been the result, for when Shelley showed a copy of it to his Roman servant, he ‘instantly recognised it as the portrait of La Cenci’.

The painting now hangs in the gloomy corridors of the Palazzo Barberini; it was purchased in 1934 by the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. The label below it has a question mark after both the artist and the subject, and adds an apologetic note that the painting is of ‘poor quality’ and is only famous because of its supposed connection with Beatrice. A couple of rooms away hangs the gallery’s masterwork: Caravaggio’s breathtaking Judith Cutting off the Head of Holofernes. In the expression of Judith, resolute but disgusted by the sheer messiness of the operation; in the fountains of blood spurting over the bed-sheets; in the scarcely veiled eroticism – her hardened nipple is painted with great specificity beneath the white gown – one might see an entirely different reading of Beatrice Cenci: not sweet and mournful like the young Sybil, but steeled to a necessary, or perhaps merely expedient, act of butchery. There is no provable connection between Caravaggio’s Judith and Beatrice, but it is by no means impossible. Caravaggio was working in Rome at the time of the trial and execution and the painting is broadly datable to this period. Perhaps it contains a vein of comment on the Cenci case; it is rather more likely to do so than the dubious Reni portrait, which caused so many flutters beneath the frock-coats of the literati.

In the later 19th century, the case became the object of more serious historical investigation. In some instances the findings contradicted the received pseudo-facts of the legend, though they did little to diminish its popularity. Even sober scholars found it hard to resist the peculiar allure of La Cenci. When a Victorian antiquarian, Edward Cheney, discovered an autograph letter of Beatrice’s in a Roman archive, he duly published the text in a learned periodical (Philobiblon, Vol 6, 1861). Halfway through his transcription, however, he signals an omission, with a note that states: ‘Here the manuscript is illegible from tears having blotted it.’ I have seen a photograph of the original document. There is some deterioration of the paper, but no sign whatever that this was caused by La Cenci’s teardrops. The bibliophile has suffered that characteristic rush of blood to the head which Beatrice excites in all the historians, particularly male ones.

The most challenging documentary discoveries were made by a tenacious archival ferret, Dr Antonio Bertoletti. In 1879 he published his findings in a slim, refreshingly dry volume, Francesco Cenci e la sua Famiglia. His first discovery was a manuscript volume in the Vittorio Emmanuele library in Rome, headed ‘Memorie dei Cenci’. In it he found, in the surprisingly well-formed hand of Count Cenci, a precise register of the births and deaths of his many children. Among these Bertoletti was surprised by the following entry: ‘Beatrice Cenci mia figlia. Naque alla 6 di febraio 1577 di giorno di mercoledi alla ore 23, et e nata nella nostra casa.’ So we learn that the beautiful teenage girl of legend, invariably described as 16 or 17, was actually 22 years and seven months old when she died. Her birthplace – ‘our house’ – was the rambling Palazzo Cenci, on the edge of Rome’s Jewish ghetto. It is still standing, though split into apartments and offices: one may imagine her passing under its dark archways, lingering by the small fountain in the courtyard, walking up the marble stairs. From the top floors she could see the broad sweep of the Tiber, and on the far bank the drum-like shape of the Castel Sant’Angelo, where she would meet her death. The topography suggests the narrowly circumscribed ambit of her life.

Bertoletti also made a remarkable discovery in his examination of Beatrice’s will, or rather – crucially – wills. (The fact that she was allowed to write a will at all puts a question mark over the received view that Pope Clement VIII hounded the Cenci to death in order to swell his coffers with confiscated revenues.) In her first and fullest will, notarised on 27 August 1599, Beatrice left a great deal of money – about 20,000 scudi in all – to charitable and religious causes. She made particular provision, in the form of trusts, for the dowries ‘of poor girls in marriage’. She also made a number of smaller bequests, typically 100 scudi, to individual relatives and retainers. What caught Bertoletti’s eye, however, was the following clause, and the rather more secretive trust-fund it alluded to:

Item. I bequeath to Madonna Catarina de Santis, widow, 300 scudi in money, to be placed at interest, and the interest to be given in alms according to the instructions I have given her. If the said Madonna Catarina should die, this legacy is to be transferred to others, on condition that they use it for the same purpose, according to my intention, as long as the person to whom these alms are to be given remains alive.

Beatrice’s friend Catarina de Santis is obscurely traceable: a respectable widow with three unmarried daughters (also remembered in Beatrice’s will). But who is the unnamed person who is to be the beneficiary of the legacy, according to the ‘instructions’ given to Catarina verbally but not revealed in the will? The probable answer was discovered by Bertoletti in a hitherto unknown codicil to the will, added by Beatrice on 7 September 1599, witnessed by her brother Giacomo and lodged with a different notary. In this codicil, written two days before her execution, she increases the sum allotted to Catarina to 1000 scudi and specifies the purpose of the bequest as being ‘the support of a certain poor boy [povero fanciullo], according to the instructions I have verbally given her’. She also adds that if the boy attains the age of 20, he should be granted ‘free possession’ of the capital. It cannot be proved, but it seems very likely that this ‘poor boy’ for whom she made such generous and secret provision was her son. If so, there is not much doubt that the father of the boy was Olimpio Calvetti, whose intimacy with Beatrice is noted by many witnesses. The hushing up of a pregnancy may have been one of the reasons for the ‘imprisonment’ of Beatrice at La Rocca.

From these documents a different Beatrice emerges. The angelic Beatrice of legend, the sweet and mournful girl of the Guido Reni portrait, the spotless damsel (or sublimated Lolita) of the 19th-century romancers, proves to have been a tough young woman in her twenties, probably the mother of an illegitimate child, probably the lover of her father’s murderer. This does not, of course, lessen the awfulness of her situation or the tyranny of her father. Nor does it lessen the evils of the sexual abuse she suffered, even if her vaunted chastity is no longer part of that equation. But how much of this is fact? Did her father really violate her, or attempt to do so?

Throughout her interrogation Beatrice maintained that she was entirely innocent of the murder. Her defence was simply that she had no motive for killing her father. It was only later, during the long and crucial summing-up by her lawyer, Prospero Farinacci, that the question of incest arose, as a compelling mitigation of her crime. Corrado Ricci notes sternly: ‘in all the trial records from November 1598 until August of the following year – in more than fifty examinations – there is not the slightest hint of any such deed.’ There is plenty of evidence of her father’s violent temper – it is certain that on one occasion he attacked her with a whip – but no mention of incest.

Then, in her last examination, on 19 August 1599, Beatrice reports her stepmother Lucrezia urging her with these words to kill her father: ‘he will abuse you and rob you of your honour.’ This seems to suggest that sexual violence was threatened, though the phrasing does not prove that any sexual violence had yet taken place. Ten days later, a former servant at La Petrella, Calidonia Lorenzini, appeared before the prosecutor. (She did so voluntarily, at the request of certain friends of Beatrice’s.) In her deposition she stated that a few days before Christmas 1597, she was in bed at ‘the third hour of the night’, when Lucrezia came in, having been sent out of the bedroom by the Count. A few minutes later, she relates, ‘I heard a voice, which seemed to me that of Beatrice, saying: “I do not want to be burned!” I heard nothing else afterwards. The following morning I asked Signora Beatrice what had ailed her when she uttered those words … She told me that her father had come into her bed, and she had told him she did not wish him to sleep there.’ In terms of statements by witnesses this is as near as we get to first-hand evidence of the bruited incest. The prosecutor was not impressed: he was particularly sceptical that the chattery Calidonia could have kept all this secret from her fellow-maid, Girolama, who knew nothing of it.

Girolama herself gives a vivid glimpse of the brutishness of domestic life in the Cenci household. It was the Count’s custom, she said, to have his skin ‘scratched and scraped’ with a damp cloth – he suffered from a form of mange. This duty often fell to Beatrice. She told Girolama ‘that sometimes she scratched her father’s testicles; and she said also that she used to dream that I, too, was scratching them, and I said to her: “That will I never do!”’ Girolama also reported that ‘Signor Francesco used to go about the house in just a shirt and doublet and a pair of drawers, and when he urinated it was necessary to hold the urinal for him under his shirt, and sometimes [Beatrice] was obliged to hold it; and it was also necessary sometimes to hold the close-stool.’ These observations tell us something about life inside La Rocca, but they do not constitute proof that Cenci had raped his daughter.

It may be that the certainty of Beatrice’s violation at the hands of her father is the hardest part of the legend for us to surrender, but the truth of the Cenci case, as with many cases of sexual abuse in the family today, will never be known. There are too many untrustworthy sources: suborned and frightened witnesses (witnesses were routinely tortured – hoisted on ropes or stretched on a kind of rack known as la veglia – to make them agree with others); documents that may not after all mean what we think they mean; a profusion of folklore and fantasy and poetic wish-fulfilment that has worked its way too deep into the story to be separated out. Francesco Cenci was an arrogant, greedy, lecherous and violent man. There are many reasons why he might have had his head stoved in on a dark night in the badlands of the Abruzzi. Lust for his daughter, credible but unproven, may have been one of them. At least five people were involved in the killing. Each had motives of some sort, but only one (the hit man Marcio, who was in it for the money) had a motive that can be defined with any certainty.

The ethereal legend of Beatrice does not itself contain the complexities and untidiness of the truth: it is a memory device that serves to remind us of the intense repressions and vulnerabilities suffered by a well-born young woman in late Renaissance Italy. In this sense, as a representative, as an individual woman who speaks for countless others, Beatrice is a heroine. But to the other questions we want to ask – What was she really like? What really happened and why? – she gives no answer. There was ‘screaming in the castle’; there were ‘shouted words’. They were audible for a moment above the white noise of history but are no longer decipherable.


The agony of Beatrice Cenci

The last tragic act in a criminal affair that was destined to become a symbol of the cruel justice administered in sixteenth-century Rome took place on 11 September 1599. At the scaffold that had been erected on Ponte Sant’Angelo, Beatrice Cenci, aged 23, and her stepmother Lucrezia Petroni were beheaded for murdering Francesco Cenci, the father and husband respectively of the accused. Giacomo, Beatrice’s brother and accomplice, was tortured with red-hot pincers, struck on the head with a bludgeon and finally quartered, while her other brother, Bernardo, just twelve, was forced to watch the brutal execution of his family and was later condemned to life imprisonment.

The events that led papal justice to order these atrocious executions began a year previously, on 10 September 1598, when the body of Francesco Cenci was found with a smashed skull, at the foot of the Rocca di Petrella Salto. The two women had been living at the castle for a few months on the head of the family’s wishes, an evil, unscrupulous man who was wealthy and corrupt, and had been accused of committing dark deeds for which he had been tried various times. However, the members of Cenci’s own family, and especially Beatrice, were the designated victims of his violence.

Beatrice, Lucrezia and her brothers plotted to kill him, with the help of the lord of the castle Olimpio Calvetti. They first tried to do it with poison but Cenci survived, and so they decided to smash his skull and throw the body from a balcony, to make it look like an accident. The theory that he fell accidentally convinced no one, however, and the pope ordered an inquiry that provided for a medical examination of the victim’s head. The results of the investigation revealed that the accused were guilty and, after having made the Cencis submit to torture – which will loosen anyone’s tongue – the court sentenced them to death.

At 8.30 pm on 10 September 1599, the brethren of the Confraternities of Misericordia and of San Giovanni Decollato of the Florentine Nation were called urgently “because the next morning some prisoners had to be executed in the prisons of Tordinona, where Giacomo and Bernardo were being held, and Corte Savella”.

The next morning Giacomo and Bernardo had to climb onto the cart that was to take them from Tordinona to Piazza di Castel Sant’Angelo where the executions were to take place. The procession halted briefly outside Corte Savella to collect Lucrezia and Beatrice, who walked in front of the cart to the gallows. The procession passed through Via di Monserrato, Via de’ Banchi and Via San Celso, which were then the busiest streets in Rome. When the condemned prisoners arrived in the square they attended a Mass and said their last farewells. The first to mount the scaffold was Bernardo, so that he could watch his family suffer their terrible deaths. Then Lucrezia was forced to climb up; she had already fainted before her head was placed on the block and the axe came down and severed it.

Beatrice was next, the crowd murmured, sobs were heard, the young woman put her head on the block and the sharp blade of the executioner’s axe also came down on her neck. Bernardo could not stomach such a cruel spectacle and passed out. Then Giacomo appeared, his body bare and racked with torture; he again proclaimed Bernardo’s innocence, then laid his head on the block, and met his death with one powerful blow of the bludgeon that smashed his head. Giacomo’s already lifeless body rolled over and the executioner flayed, quartered and dismembered it and hung the pieces from butcher’s hooks.

The dead bodies, or what was left of them, remained on view until 11 pm, the brethren of the Confraternity of San Giovanni Decollato recomposed Giacomo’s pitiful remains and took them to their church to hand them over to the relatives who, respecting his last wishes, buried him in the small Church of San Tommaso dei Cenci. Lucrezia’s body was given to the Velli family. According to witnesses, her decapitated corpse was honoured by the people who carried it in procession along Via Giulia, across Ponte Sisto, and down the tree-lined Via del Gianicolo to the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, where the brethren of the Confraternity of the Sacre Stimmate and Beatrice’s confessor laid it in a burial niche in the apse.

According to some, the two executioners who carried out the death sentences on Beatrice and Giacomo Cenci and Lucrezia Petroni – Mastro Alessandro Bracca and Mastro Peppe – both came to a tragic end: the first died thirteen days after the Cencis’ atrocious death, plagued by nightmares and remorse for having inflicted such horrible agony on them and, in particular, for torturing Giacomo Cenci with red-hot pincers; the second executioner was stabbed to death at Porta Castello, a month after Beatrice’s execution.


Portraits of Beatrice

The Cenci Case in Literature and Opera

We are taught that the history of Rome, like the social history of mankind, began with a fratricide. The people of Rome share with us all the inborn feeling that the destruction of one's own flesh and blood is the worst of crimes. It is in part the dread and fascination inspired by family murder that have won a curious immortality for the trial of Beatrice Cenci and her brothers in Rome in 1599 for the murder of their father, Francesco. The trial was a convulsive event and left behind it substantial contemporary commentaries in addition to the official trial records. The interest of the public was understandable. The case was not only a patricide but also an archetypal drama involving generational struggle, a social setting of wealth and nobility, the competing claims of religious authority and individual will, and an aura of violence and of sexual and moral corruption. Beginning with Shelley's great poetry-drama of 1819, a large number of literary and operatic settings have been made of the Cenci tragedy. A recent version is the opera by Alberto Ginastera, Beatrix Cenci, which had its American premieres at The Kennedy Center For the Performing Arts in September 1971 and at the New York City Opera in March 1973.

The story of the Cencis turns on the tragic confrontation of the dissolute nobleman, Count Francesco Cenci, and his children. Francesco was bequeathed an ancient Roman lineage and a great fortune by his father, Cristoforo. Francesco's inheritance of the family name was one of those last-minute affairs, since Cristoforo married Francesco's mother only on his deathbed and had legitimated his twelve-year-old son shortly before. Francesco's succession to his father's fortune was even more tenuous, since Cristoforo, as an official of the papal treasury, had made himself rich through embezzlement of Church funds and passed on to his son, together with his wealth, the determination of the Church government to reclaim its rightful portion.

Francesco's youth was stormy and was marked not only by amorous adventure with the women of Rome but also by signs of perversion and a strain of violence that found frequent release in street brawling and attacks on servants and tenants. He was often imprisoned, but fines and money damages won him freedom. Most of his sons grew up in his own image of violence, but he liked them no better for the resemblance. Ironically bearing a surname meaning "rags," Cenci kept his sons in a state of destitution until three of them obtained a papal decree ordering him to provide them with maintenance. Francesco was also caught in a maze of lawsuits with his creditors, who challenged the restrictions he had placed on family properties, and with the Church, to which he twice made reparation for his father's thievery. He was always in litigation with members of his own family, his most sensational controversy being his unsuccessful (but prescient) claim that his son Giacomo was attempting to poison him.

Two of his sons died violently, Rocco being killed in the aftermath of a street fight and Cristoforo being murdered in Trastevere in a love triangle that would have delighted the heart of Mascagni. Tradition has Francesco rejoicing in his sons' deaths, but his joys were numbered. Creditors were closing in on the stingy count and a dowry was required for the marriage of his daughter Antonina. Worst of all, he was convicted in 1594 of sodomy, and saved himself from the stake only by a payment of one-third of his estate to the Roman government.

In 1597, Francesco, with his daughter Beatrice and his second wife, Lucrezia, moved from Rome to the Castle of Petrella, perched high on a crag in the Abbruzzi. The castle was situated in the Kingdom of Naples just beyond the borders of the Papal States; rumor was divided as to whether his purpose in moving was to devise new crimes beyond the reach of vigilant Roman authorities, or, more prosaically, to escape his creditors. In any event, he seemed intent on keeping Beatrice under his control in the castle indefinitely so as to prevent her marriage and the burden of another dowry. What began as residence passed into imprisonment, with Beatrice and her stepmother being confined in a room whose windows were walled up and replaced by air vents. He beat Lucrezia with a riding-spur when she upbraided him for an attempted sexual assault on her young son, and struck Beatrice with a bullwhip after he discovered a letter she had written to her brother Giacomo seeking his help in obtaining her release.

From the violence and degradation to which he subjected his daughter and wife in the castle and from the largely financial grievances of his son Giacomo, a murder-conspiracy gradually took form. Beatrice's lawyer, the eminent Prospero Farinaccio, was later to argue unsuccessfully, on the basis of inconclusive and conflicting testimony of two maids, that the principal murder motive was an incestuous attack by Francesco upon Beatrice. The tradition and literature of the case seized on the incest claim as central to the tragedy. But nobody can read of the wretched treatment of the two women at La Petrella without finding Francesco's cruelty to be unnatural even in the absence of incest.

The murder conspiracy may be described as a tragedy of errors. Beatrice appears to have been the main force behind the crime, but the murderer was Olimpio Calvetti, castellan of La Petrella, with whom Beatrice had been having a love affair. Giacomo gave his consent to the murder from Rome but lent little assistance, except a supply of poison that could not be administered to Francesco because of his suspicious nature. Lucrezia wavered, but when the murder hour arrived, it was she who unlocked the door to her husband's bedroom. Assisted by Marzio Catalano, a tinker and sometime guitar teacher, Olimpio killed Francesco with a hammer. The count's body was thrown from the castle after the murderers clumsily enlarged a hole in a balcony in order to make it appear that the floor had given way. Suspicions of murder were immediately aroused, and they were increased by the over-hasty burial of the count and the inept attempts of the conspirators to cover up evidence of the murder. On the orders of the Cenci family and their ally, Monsignore Mario Guerra (whom tradition later incorrectly identified as a suitor of Beatrice), Olimpio was assassinated to eliminate his testimony. However, Olimpio's accomplice Marzio, who had been wandering through neighboring villages giving guitar lessons with Count Cenci's cloak on his back as payment and proof of his crime, was captured and confessed his part in the murder. After initial arrogant denials leading to continued questioning and to torture, Giacomo, Lucrezia and Beatrice ultimately confessed. Giacomo and Lucrezia put the principal blame on Beatrice, and Beatrice accused her dead lover, Olimpio.

Beatrice, Lucrezia, Giacomo, and a teen-aged brother, Bernardo (who at the most may have concurred passively in Giacomo's consent to the murder), were sentenced to death. The brief of their principal defense counsel, Farinaccio, survives. He argued that Beatrice's part in the murder was justified by her father's incestuous assault and by her fear of its repetition. (In a note that he appended to a final edition of his brief prepared years later, Farinaccio conceded that the claim of the act of incest had not been proved.) The lawyer contended that Lucrezia had withdrawn from the conspiracy, and Giacomo, he urged, should not be punished more severely than his sister for coming to her defense. Finally, he argued that Bernardo was entitled to clemency because of his minority and dim-wittedness. Bernardo was only seventeen at the time of the murder, but his mental incapacity was demonstrated by no better evidence that that he had difficulty with his Latin lessons.

All the defendants were condemned to death. It is conjectured that Pope Clement VIII might have been inclined to mercy had not another murder of a noble parent, Costanza Santacroce, entirely without extenuating circumstances, occurred in Rome while he was considering the Cenci case. In any event, the Pope granted a reprieve only to young Bernardo, who was, however, condemned to witness the executions and thereafter to serve in prison galleys.

The executions were cruel. Giacomo was clubbed to death and the two women were beheaded. Beatrice was only twenty-two when she died, but looked younger and is remembered as a beauty. Even at the execution, her unusual hold on the public sympathy and imagination was apparent. Young girls placed garlands on her head while it lay at the foot of the scaffold, and large mourning crowds followed as her body was taken to its resting place in the Church of San Pietro in Montorio. The legend of Beatrice had already begun.

In the seventeenth century fanciful accounts of the case were published that purported to have been authored immediately after the executions but may have been written decades later. One such version inspired Shelley to write his drama, The Cenci, in 1819. A manuscript purporting to have been copied from the archive of the Cenci Palace was given to the poet during his travels in Italy. In a preface to his play, he recalled that when he arrived in Rome, he "found that the story of the Cenci was a subject not to be mentioned in Italian society without awakening a deep and breathless interest." Shelley was strongly drawn to the figure of Beatrice, "a most gentle and amiable being, a creature found to adorn and be admired, and thus violently thwarted from her nature by the necessity of circumstance and opinion." At the same time, his anticlerical emotions were aroused by what he saw as evidence of corruption at work in the Pope's judgment. "The old man [the count] had during his life repeatedly bought his pardon from the Pope for capital crimes of the most enormous and unspeakable kind" and the Pope as a consequence "probably felt that whoever killed the Count Cenci deprived his treasury of a certain and copious source of revenue." Shelley even asserted that the Papal government had attempted to suppress the facts relating to its handling of the Cenci case and that the circulation of the manuscript he had received had been "until very lately, a matter of some difficulty."

Shelley intended his play for public performance and even dreamt of Edmund Kean in the role of the Count Francesco. But he recognized that "the story of the Cenci is indeed eminently fearful and monstrous: anything like a dry exhibition of it on the stage would be insupportable." It was necessary, therefore, to "increase the ideal, and diminish the actual horror of the events." As one concession to public taste, Shelley muted the incest theme; Mary Shelley thought the strongest allusion was a curse of Cenci that if Beatrice have a child, it may be

A hideous likeness of herself, that as
From a distorting mirror, she may see
Her image mixed with what she most abhors,
Smiling upon her from her nursing breast.
                      (act 4, scene 1, lines 146-49)

According to Shelley, the highest moral purpose of drama was "the teaching of the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself." The drama was not, in his view, the place for the enforcement of dogmas. Therefore, though Beatrice might have done better in life to win Count Francesco from his evil ways by peace and love, a theatre audience would yawn at his conversion; the real themes of the case -- revenge, retaliation, and atonement -- were also the fabric of effective drama.

Holding these opinions on the function of drama, Shelley set out to focus his play on the clash of passionate human beings. Although his treatment of the case is consequently less ideological than some of the modern settings, images repeatedly used by the poet highlight themes of the inadequacy of human justice and the struggle of youth with old age and authority. These two themes are combined in Cardinal Camillo's quotation of the Pope's explanation of unwillingness to punish Francesco for an impious celebration of the death of two sons:

In the great war between the old and young
I, who have white hairs and a tottering body,
Will keep at least blameless neutrality.
(act 2, scene 2, lines 38-40)

In Shelley's version, Beatrice and her co-conspirators are selfishly urged on by the young priest Orsino (the poet's name for the historical Monsignore Guerra) in the hope that the murder will put Beatrice and the family fortune in his power. Beatrice, however, dominates the play. After her father's crime against her (which gains in horror by never being expressly named), Shelley's heroine moves successively from a sense of degradation to a desire for self-purification, revenge, declaration of moral innocence, and resigned preparation for death.

Shelley's version has often been copied, but perhaps the greatest tribute came from his countryman, Walter Savage Landor, who loved Shelley's play so much that he declined to invite comparison between The Cenci and his own more modest work on the same theme. In his Five Scenes (1851), Landor wrote not a drama but five separate tableaux from the Cenci history, none of which portrayed either the act of incest or the murder. Landor's Beatrice is at once more girlish and more resolute than Shelley's heroine.

Another English poet who responded to the appeal of Beatrice and her fate was Robert Browning; the Cenci case has both historical and literary bonds with Browning's The Ring and the Book. In the Guido Franceschini case (on which Browning based his poem), defense counsel, in seeking to justify Guido's having avenged his honor after passage of time rather than in hot blood, was faced with the precedent of the conviction of Beatrice Cenci. He tried to avoid the force of this earlier case by quoting the explanation Beatrice's lawyer Farinaccio had given for his failure to obtain an acquittal: it was not that Beatrice had plotted revenge in cold blood, but that the incest charge had not been established. Wholly apart from this link in legal history, Browning acknowledged that The Ring and the Book owed an enormous literary debt to Shelley's The Cenci. In 1876, as a graceful token of gratitude, he addressed to Shelley's memory a short narrative poem, "Cenciaja," recounting the murder trial of Paolo Santacroce, the case that had influenced the refusal of Pope Clement VIII to grant clemency to Beatrice. According to Browning, the wrong Santacroce brother was executed for the crime.

The Cenci case also fascinated French writers. Stendhal was a avid collector of manuscripts of old Italian crimes. In 1837 he published a close rendering of a variant of the account of the Cenci case that provided the basis for the Shelley play. His most important literary contribution was a preface in which he presented Francesco as a corrupt mutation of what he called the Don Giovanni model. In Stendhal's concept the Don Giovanni type begins by expressing opposition to what he regards as the irrational conventions of a hypocritical society. In his decadent stage, illustrated by Francesco, Don Giovanni derives his pleasure from criminal excesses banned by reasonable social restrictions.

Two years after the Stendhal work, Alexandre Dumas the Elder contributed to a series of Celebrated Crimes an account of the Cenci case that draws on a source similar to Stendhal's and in some respects appears to plagiarize Stendhal's preface. However, Dumas shows none of Stendhal's reticence in dealing with the more lurid aspects of the case. Dumas' detailed account of the torture methods used even drew a complaint from Thackeray, who was himself a writer much concerned with crime and punishment.

In Italy the Cenci theme was seized upon by nineteenth-century men of letters who were associated with patriotic activity and anticlericalism. The dramatist Giovanni Battista Niccolini, an ardent republican and opponent of Church authority, made an unsuccessful adaptation of the Shelley play in 1838. Much more popular was the 1851 novel, Beatrice Cenci, by Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi, a patriot of the Risorgimento and an enemy of the Papal Government of Rome. Guerrazzi's account distorts the facts of the case beyond recognition. In his novel Beatrice is free of any guilt. Her father is murdered by her suitor Guerra, who surprises the count in the act of assaulting her. Beatrice is idealized in the extreme; she is a militant saint who, while defending her brothers and her honor, continually exhorts her father to repentance. Guerrazzi presents Francesco as a conscious believer in a doctrine of evil, who holds that man is free to commit any outrages until checked by divine intervention.

Beginning with the latter half of the nineteenth century, research in official archives has stripped away many of the Cenci legends and has given us a more humanized portrait of Beatrice. In 1877 Antonio Bertolotti published for the first time the text of a second codicil to Beatrice's will in which she made provision for a little boy, whom Bertolotti assumed to be a child born of her liaison with the murderer Olimpio. Bertolotti also believed that the alleged incest, to which Beatrice had never testified, was an invention of Farinaccio, whom Bertolotti denigrated as a man whose own loose morals had inspired the defense. Although Corrado Ricci, in his definitive study of the case in 1923, concurs in Bertolotti's conclusions with respect to the birth of Beatrice's child and the insubstantiality of the incest claim, he rejects Bertolotti's ridiculous attempt to rehabilitate Francesco as a man of religious conviction and leaves us a well-balanced view of Beatrice as a victim not free of fault but entitled to clemency, if not acquittal. Unfortunately, we must also credit to Ricci the definitive disproof of the charming tradition that Guido Reni's portrait of a sweet turbaned girl which until recent times hung in the Barberini Gallery is a death-cell painting of Beatrice. (This painting has been worshipped as an icon of Beatrice by throngs of literary tourists, including Shelley and Hawthorne, who devotes to the Reni work an entire chapter of The Marble Faun.) Ricci's version of the historical facts of the case provides the basis for many of the modern literary reconstructions that have followed, including the colorful novel of Frederic Prokosch, A Tale for Midnight (1955).

In the modern era, Antonin Artaud and Alberto Moravia have written dramas on the Cenci case that in quite different ways remove the conflict between Francesco and Beatrice from the plane of morality. Artaud's The Cenci (1935) was written and performed, with the author in the role of Francesco, as an approach towards realization of Artaud's concept of the Theatre of Cruelty. In Artaud's drama, sound, light, and gesture supplement the word in rousing the audience's responses. Artaud follows the narrative plan of Shelley's play, but there the similarity of the two works ends. Elements of myth, storm, and dream propel Artaud's drama, and the characters are forces of nature more than rational beings. Francesco is presented as personifying the myth of the "father destroyer." Beatrice is not the embodiment of purity, but a force that is compelled to react to her father's violence. As her death approaches, Beatrice's principal fear is that she has come to resemble her father.

In Moravia's Beatrice Cenci (published in Italy in 1958), the ultimate kinship of the personalities of Francesco and Beatrice is also suggested. As in much of Moravia's work, all the characters are locked in their own worlds of isolation and egoism. Olimpio kills to maintain power over Beatrice, and Marzio kills for money. Francesco's crimes are explained by his weak sense of his own reality except when stimulated by excess. Beatrice explains her revenge not by an incestuous attack but by a childhood "loss of innocence" caused by witnessing an amorous passage of her father. However, Francesco charges that the root of her antagonism and of her failure to leave the castle of La Petrella is a trait she has inherited from him, an "incapacity for living."

The Cenci tragedy, with its mingling of pity and terror, seems as well suited to the opera stage as to the criminal courts. The history of its operatic treatments confirms the strong international appeal of the case and of its heroine. Appropriately, it was an Italian composer, Giuseppe Rota (1836-1903), who made the earliest operatic setting of which record survives. Rota's three-act tragedy, Beatrice Cenci, was first performed in 1863 in Rome. Subsequent operatic settings of the Cenci case have been composed and performed far from the home of the historical case. In 1927, Beatrice Cenci, an opera of the Polish composer Ludomir Rozycki had its premiere in Warsaw. This opera proved to be one of Rozycki's most popular works, and was revived in Poznan in 1936. The libretto, written by the composer and his wife, was based on a drama by Julius Slowacki, one of the most important Polish Romantics. Slowacki began his play in French in 1832 while he was in Paris and completed it in Polish in 1839 after his return to Paris. Considered as diverging from the Shelley treatment and antedating Stendhal in its original conception, Slowacki's work has been described as "pathetic, violent, full of a romantic splendor of style."

A third version of the opera, Beatrice Cenci, by Berthold Goldschmidt, a German-born composer and conductor residing in England, was awarded a Festival of Britain prize in 1951. In 1953 the BBC broad-cast excerpts from the opera conducted by the composer with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The libretto for the opera, which followed the Shelley text verbatim to the extent possible, was prepared by the composer in collaboration with drama critic Martin Esslin. Certain poems of Shelley, such as "Unfathomable Sea," were also included in the libretto.

Albert Ginastera's Beatrix Cenci reflects, as did its predecessor, Bomarzo, the composer's predilection for the violent history of the Italian Renaissance. The libretto, which was written in Spanish by William Shand, an Englishman residing in Argentina, and the poet Alberto Girri, is based on the Shelley play. As in Shelley's drama, the Ginastera work preserves the incestuous rape as the crucial act of violence begetting the tragedy. However, both the libretto and the concept of the production appear to bring the Ginastera opera closer to the spirit of Artaud than to the nineteenth-century precursors. Projections of slides and movies, dream sequences, and dramatic lighting effects are used and, fulfilling Artaud's requirement that each character have his own "particular cry," the climactic end of the first act is dominated by the barking of the count's mastiffs and Beatrice's prolonged scream of anguish.

The Ginastera opera, like the Artaud and Moravia plays, is informed by the vision that this old Renaissance tragedy can speak to us still of the violence of our own era, a violence that can overcome the comfort of the family and the promise of youth. Thus the chorus in the opening scene calls Count Cenci "a forerunner of our own times." This understanding of the continuing relevance of the case must also be conceded to the earlier masters of the Cenci story. In fact, one of the Cencis' judges in act 5, scene 1 of Shelley's tragedy makes a comment on the murder evidence that may serve to explain why the awful facts of the case have universal meaning. The judge says of the testimony: "This sounds as bad as truth."


A detailed historical account of the Cenci case is provided by Corrado Ricci, Beatrice Cenci (New York: Liveright, 1933)(Morris Bishop & Henry Longan Stuart trans.). See also, Antonio Bertolotti, Francesco Cenci e la sua Famiglia (Florence: Gazzetta d'Italia, 1877). The principal literary versions of the Cenci case discussed in the essay are: Antonin Artaud, The Cenci: A Play (New York: Grove Press, 1970)(Simon Watson Taylor trans.); Robert Browning, "Cenciaja," in The Poems and Plays of Robert Browning 1008-12 (New York: Modern Library, 1934); Alexandre Dumas, "The Cenci," in Celebrated Crimes 3-47 (Philadelphia: G. Barrie & Sons, 1895)(vol. 5)(I.G. Burnham trans.); Francesco Guerrazzi, Beatrice Cenci ([New York]: The National Alumni, 1907)(Luigi Monti trans.); Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1891)(vol. 1, ch. 7); Walter Savage Landor, "Five Scenes," in Stephen Wheeler (ed.), The Poetical Works of Walter Savage Landor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937)(vol. 2, at 6-29); Alberto Moravia, Beatrice Cenci (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966) (Angus Davidson trans.); Frederic Prokosch, A Tale for Midnight (New York: Little, Brown, 1956); William Shand & Alberto Girri, Beatrix Cenci (New York: Boosey and Hawkes, 1971)(libretto for opera in two acts and fourteen scenes by Alberto Ginastera); Percy Bysshe Shelley, "The Cenci," in John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley: Complete Poetical Works 298-366 (New York: Modern Library, 1932); Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle), The Cenci, in The Shorter Novels of Stendhal 165-203 (New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 1946)(C.K. Scott-Moncrieff trans.); William Makepeace Thackeray, "Celebrated Crimes," in Robert S. Garnett (ed.), The New Sketch Book: Being Essays Now First Collected from "The Foreign Quarterly Review," 86-87 (London: Alston Rivers, 1906).

For the description of the style of Slowacki's Beatrix Cenci, see Stefan Treugott, Julius Slowacki, Romantic Poet 88 (Warsaw, 1959).

This article was previously published in Opera News, March 17, 1973, pp. 10-13 and in A Gallery of Sinister Perspectives 11-20.

Collected Essays of Albert Borowitz 



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