The Tragic Life and Death of Beatrice Cenci
“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.” – Shelley on Guido Reni’s portrait of Beatrice Cenci
By all accounts, Francesco Cenci was a brute and a horrible excuse for a human being. He violently abused his first wife, Ersilia Santa Croce, and grossly mistreated his sons and daughter Beatrice. Because of his wealth and influence, Frank treated lesser mortals, especially women and children, any way his aristocratic ass pleased. His wife and children were helpless and innocent targets of his rage or lust. Whether his impetus was rage, lust, or both, depended on his mood, I guess.
Eventually, Francesco’s outrageous behavior (though not his horrible treatment of his family) got him in hot water with the Church. The Pope fined Cenci and tossed him in the Catholic clink for a few months. Now, be sure to keep in mind if the Average Joe had committed the same offenses, it would have been curtains for him.
But Francesco was, of course, a nobleman.
During his imprisonment, Beatrice sought protection from her father’s abuse and cruelty. But the authorities ignored her desperate pleas as, once again, Daddy was an aristocrat. You can bet when Frank heard his daughter was squealing on him he was not happy about it. As soon as he was released, he forced his second wife Lucrezia, Beatrice, and his youngest son Bernardo off to his remote castle La Rocca, on a high crag above the small village of La Petrella del Salto.
Away from the city, Francesco became even more cruel and depraved. When her father discovered Beatrice had contacted her older brother Giacomo to intervene, he whipped Beatrice to within an inch of her life. It became clear that the only way to end Francesco Cenci’s tyranny was to end his life.
It’s hard to know exactly who was in on the plot to off Papa Cenci. Most accounts believe Lucrezia, Beatrice, Giacoma, and two family servants (one rumored to be the secret lover of Beatrice) were the co-conspirators. The servants were the ones who committed the actual crime – which didn’t quite go off as planned.
Lucrezia had drugged her husband as agreed, but when the assassins showed up on September 9, 1598, expecting an unconscious victim, they found instead the ever-cranky Francesco ready to fight. This meant they had to bash his head in and ended up hammering a metal spike into his skull. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, but it really wasn’t something you could make look like an accidental fall from a window, which was the original plan.
Not surprisingly, no one believed for a second it was anything but what it was – premeditated murder. No one was grieving for the old dead bastard, but the entire Cenci clan was taken back to Rome to stand trial.
You know, that whole “noble” man thing.
The trial dragged on for a year, and before it was over, the two hands-on murderers were both dead. One died while being tortured, while the other escaped only to be caught by a bounty hunter and beheaded. The Cencis were also tortured despite their aristocratic status. They all broke and confessed – except for Beatrice, who remained completely silent.
They were all found guilty and sentenced to death.
Everyone in Rome knew what a despicable POS Count Francesco was and sympathized with the nightmarish plight of the Cenci family. There were loud calls for clemency, but Pope Clement felt he had to make an example of the Cencis to stem the rising tide of murders among noble families.
So, beheadings all around.
The sentences were carried out at dawn outside the Castel St Angelo on September 11, 1599. Beatrice reportedly went to her death with remarkable composure. She and her step-mother Lucrezia were executed either by sword or a primitive form of the guillotine.
Her brother Giacoma, being a man and the snitch, had his head smashed in with a mallet before he was quartered. 12-year-old Bernardo’s life was spared. However, the poor kid was forced to watch his family die, and was sentenced to life as a galley slave.
I’m sure none of that traumatized Bernie at all. Nah.
Beatrice, along with the rest of her family, is buried in the beautiful church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, on the site where St. Peter was martyred. A lovely resting place for a young woman whose only crime was defending herself against a lifetime of incest, sexual assault, and physical abuse.