September 11, 2007

September 11 | Beatrice Cenci

February 6, 1577 - September 11, 1599: Age 22

Beatrice Cenci was the daughter of an Italian Count named Francesco Cenci. He had a dubious reputation, and kept Beatrice and her mother virtually prisoners in his country castello while he amused himself with the vicious pleasures of Rome. His visits home were no picnic for the women, as he was said to have abused both of them physically and sexually.

One day in 1598 a great commotion was heard in the castle. The locals rushed over to find Beatrice's mother screaming, Beatrice "strangely silent", a splintered wooden balcony, and the Count's bloody body 30 meters below it in a gully of rocks and shrubs. He was definitely dead. In fact, oddly enough, he was cold. Moreover, when the body was washed, it was discovered that he had somehow acquired several stab wounds in the head that were not quite consistent with the notion of a fall.

A year of investigations revealed that the Count had been drugged and then two men had entered the castle and driven an iron spike into his head. They pushed the body off the balcony and made a hole in the balcony floor to make it look like an accident, but neglected to get rid of the bloody sheets and mess inside. Extensive confessions (obtained under torture) revealed that the men had been hired for this purpose by the Count's family. Both murderers died during the investigation: one ran away but got his head cut off by a bounty-hunter's hatchet, the other died under torture. Although Beatrice never confessed, it was believed that she had been the most determined of the conspirators, urging the men on when they hesitated at the last minute. The whole family was found guilty.

Alhtough Beatrice never confessed, nobody doubted her culpability. The Count was extremely unpopular and the common people had no trouble believing he had abused Beatrice. That, combined with her youth and beauty — she was thought to be about 17 — made her a cause célèbre. Widespread protest of the verdict did bring about a brief stay of execution, but in the end the Pope ordered that the sentences be carried out. (The family estate reverted to the Church.)

On September 11, 1599, one year and two days after the murder, the sentence was carried out. The elder brother, Giacomo, was publicly tortured to death. Beatrice and her mother were beheaded. The other brother, being only 12, was considered by the judges to have been too young to have had anything to do with it. Even so, he was sentenced to be present on the scaffold with his family to witness their executions before being sent to the galleys for a life of slavery. Today, Beatrice's ghost can be seen every year on the night of the eve of her execution, walking the Sant'Angelo Bridge where the scaffold was built, carrying her severed head.

Over the years the story of the desperate innocent girl driven to murder by her father's abuse seized the imagination of artists, playwrights, poets, and filmmakers. The portrait by Reni (shown here) was a big part of that continuing interest; many wrote about its inspiring effect. Mary Shelley, writing of her husband's interest in the legend (he wrote a play about it), said that the portrait's "beauty cast the reflection of its own grace over her appalling story; Shelley's imagination because strangely excited." Stendhal wrote of "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 foudn it "a picture almost impossible to be forgotten", full of "transcendent sweetness" and "beautiful sorrow". Hawthorne found it "the very saddest ever painted or conceived: it involves an unfathomable depth of sorrow", and further wrote, "She is a fallen angel — fallen and yet sinless."

Modern historical research is such a buzzkill. Reni was Bolognese and didn't even paint in Rome before 1608, nine years after her death. It's much more likely the portrait is one of the Muses, and the link with Beatrice is a based on pure speculation ("probably the Cenci girl" written in a catalogue in the late 18th century). Moreover, documentary research has turned up a record of her birth and shown that "the poor girl of 16" was 22 when she was executed. Finally, there is some suggestion that she had an illegitimate child — a plausible explanation for her "imprisonment" in the castle.

It is obvious that the Cenci family was dysfunctional, even abusive; there is plenty of evidence supporting that. However this story, that grew into a rather simplistic drama laced with sex and violence, is deeper and more complicated than the myth.

Sources: Beatrice Cenci: Storia del secolo XVI (Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi), Screaming in the Castle (Charles Nicholl), Wikipedia

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