At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Beatrice Cenci - Roman heroine

Aristocrat's daughter executed for murder of abusive father



Guido Reni's portrait of Beatrice, in prison clothes, is thought to have been painted in 1662
Guido Reni's portrait of Beatrice, in prison
clothes, is thought to have been painted in 1662
Beatrice Cenci, the daughter of an aristocrat whose execution for the murder of her abusive father became a legendary story in Roman history, was born on this day in 1577 in the family's palace off the Via Arenula, not far from what is now the Ponte Garibaldi in the Regola district.

Cenci's short life ended with her beheading in front of Castel Sant'Angelo on 11 September 1599, with most of the onlookers convinced that an injustice had taken place.

Her father, Francesco Cenci, had a reputation for violent and immoral behaviour that was widely known and had often been found guilty of serious crimes in the papal court. Yet where ordinary citizens were routinely sentenced to death for similar or even lesser offences, he was invariably given only a short prison sentence and frequently bought his way out of jail.

Romans appalled at this two-tier system of justice turned Beatrice into a symbol of resistance against the arrogance of the aristocracy and her story has been preserved not only in local legend but in many works of literature.

In the early 19th century, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was living in Italy, was so moved by her story that he turned it into a drama in verse entitled The Cenci: A Tragedy in Five Acts.

Subsequently, the story has been the subject of at least a dozen plays and short stories, including works by Stendhal, Alexandre Dumas, Antonin Arnaud, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Alberto Moravia. It has also inspired at least two full-length novels and five operas or musical dramas.

The Palazzo dei Cenci, off Via Arenula, was the Cenci family's palatial home in the 16th century
The Palazzo dei Cenci, off Via Arenula, was the Cenci
family's palatial home in the 16th century
The Mannerist painter Guido Reni painted a portrait of Cenci that is on display at the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antica  in Palazzo Barberini. A sculpture of her carved by the American sculptor Harriet Goodhue Hosmer in 1857 can be found at the University of Missouri-St Louis.  The Italian director, Lucio Fulci, made a film of her life in 1969.

According to the legend, Francesco Cenci, one of the wealthiest men in Rome, abused his first wife Ersilia Santacroce and his sons and repeatedly raped Beatrice while living in the Palazzo Cenci. He was jailed for incest among other crimes but always freed early.

Beatrice's elder sister, Antonina, escaped when she was granted permission by the papal authorities to marry without her father's consent. But Beatrice was sent away, along with Cenci's second wife, Lucrezia, to live in the family's country castle at La Petrella del Salto in the Abruzzi mountains, together with his son by his second marriage, Bernardo.

There the abuse continued, leading Beatrice to write to her brother, Giacomo, in desperation.  When he joined them at the castle, in 1598, they devised a plot to kill Francesco.

With the help of two servants - one of whom, Olimpio, was thought to have been Beatrice's lover - they drugged Francesco and then bludgeoned him to death with a hammer, before throwing him off a balcony in the hope it would look like an accident.

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer's sculpture of Beatrice Cenci at the University of Missuori-St Louis
Harriet Goodhue Hosmer's sculpture of Beatrice Cenci
at the University of Missuori-St Louis
However, the papal police decided to investigate what had happened, found blood in Francesco's bed and placed the family and Olimpio, under house arrest, where they were subjected to interrogation and torture.

Olimpio died without revealing that Beatrice was the mastermind but the others confessed one by one. All were sentenced to death with the exception of Bernardo, who was told he would witness the executions, serve a prison sentence and then live his life as a galley slave, although in the event he was released from prison after a year.

A protest on the streets of Rome by people who knew the circumstances behind the murder gained a short postponement of the execution. Yet Pope Clement VIII, anxious not to legitimise familial murders, showed no mercy.

Following the executions, Beatrice was buried in the church of San Pietro in Montorio, on Gianicolo hill in Trastevere.  The legend has it that every year on the night before the anniversary of her death, she comes back to the bridge where she was executed, carrying her severed head.


The plaque commemorating Beatrice Cenci on Via di Monserrato in Rome
The plaque commemorating Beatrice Cenci on
Via di Monserrato in Rome
Travel tip:

Evidence of how much the story of Beatrice Cenci means to Rome can be found on Via di Monserrato, along the route the Cenci family members took on the morning of their executions, from the Corte Savella prison to Castel Sant'Angelo, accompanied by members of the Brotherhood of St. John the Decapitated. On the 500th anniversary of her death, the city put up a plaque, bearing the inscription: "From here, where once stood the prison of Corte Savella, on September 11, 1599 Beatrice Cenci was taken to the gallows, an exemplary victim of unfair justice."

Travel tip:

Some of the relics of the day of the execution have made their way to the Museo Criminologico in Via del Gonfalone, off the Lungotevere dei Sangallo. These include the so-called “sword of justice” that killed Lucrezia and Beatrice, as well as clothes worn by the monks who accompanied them. There is also a replica of a stripped man being drawn and quartered, which was the fate of Giacomo.

More reading:


How a dramatic storm took the life of the poet Shelley

The tragic nun whose funeral brought Rome to a standstill

The work that turned Alberto Moravia into a major literary figure


Also on this day:


1778: The birth of the poet and revolutionary Ugo Foscolo

(Picture credits: sculpture by Quartermaster; plaque by Lalupa; via Wikimedia Commons)


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