On my arrival at Rome I found that the story of the Cenci was a subject not to be mentioned in Italian society without awakening a deep and breathless interest: and that the feelings of the company never failed to incline to a romantic pity for the wrongs, and a passionate exculpation of the horrible deed to which they urged her who has been mingled two centuries with the common dust. All ranks of people knew the outlines of this history, and participated in the overwhelming interest which it seems to have the magic of exciting in the human heart. I had a copy of Guido’s picture of Beatrice, which is preserved in the Colonna Palace, and my servant instantly recognized it as the portrait of La Cenci….
The portrait of Beatrice at the Colonna Palace is most admirable as a work of art: it was taken by Guido during her confinement in prison. But it is most interesting as a just representation of 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. Her head is bound with folds of white drapery, from which the yellow strings of her golden hair escape, and fall about her neck. The moulding of her face is exquisitely delicate; the eyebrows are distinct and arched; the lips have that permanent meaning of imagination and sensibility which suffering has not repressed, and which it seems as if death scarcely could extinguish. Her forehead is large and clear; 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. Beatrice Cenci appears to have been one of those rare persons in whom energy and gentleness dwell together without destroying one another: her nature was simple and profound. The crimes and miseries in which she was an actor and a sufferer are as the mask and mantle in which circumstances clothed her for her impersonation on the scene of the world.
Portrait of Beatrice Cenci.
The Cenci Palace is of great extent; and, though in part modernized, there yet remains a vast and gloomy pile of feudal architecture in the same state as during the dreadful scenes which are the subject of this tragedy. The palace is situated in an obscure corner of Rome, near the quarter of the Jews; and from the upper windows you see the immense ruins of Mount Palatine, half hidden under their profuse overgrowth of trees. There is a court in one part of the palace (perhaps that in which Cenci built the chapel to St. Thomas) supported by granite columns, and adorned with antique friezes of fine workmanship, and built up, according to the ancient Italian fashion, with balcony over balcony of open work. One of the gateways of the palace, formed of immense stones, and leading through a passage dark and lofty, and opening into gloomy subterranean chambers, struck me particularly….
The most wicked life which the Roman nobleman, Francesco Cenci, led in this world not only occasioned his own ruin and death, but also that of many others and brought down the destruction of his house. Concerning his religion, it is sufficient to state that he never frequented any church; and, although he caused a small chapel, dedicated to the Apostle St. Thomas, to be built in the court of his palace, his intention in so doing was to bury there all his children, whom he cruelly hated. He cursed [his sons] and often also struck and ill-treated his daughters. The eldest of these, being unable any longer to support the cruelty of her father, exposed her miserable condition to the Pope and supplicated him either to marry her according to his choice, or shut her up in a monastery, that by any means she might be liberated from the cruel oppression of her parent. Her prayer was heard, and the Pope, in pity to her unhappiness, bestowed her in marriage to Signore Carlo Gabrielli, one of the first gentlemen of the city of Gubbio, and obliged Francesco to give her a fitting dowry of some thousand crowns.
Francesco, fearing that his youngest daughter would, when she grew up, follow the example of her sister, bethought himself how to hinder this design, and for that purpose shut her up alone in an apartment of the palace, where he himself brought her food, so that no one might approach her; and imprisoned her in this manner for several months, often inflicting on her blows with a stick.
In the meantime ensued the death of his two sons, Rocco and Cristoforo—one being assassinated by a surgeon, and the other by Paolo Corso, while he was attending mass. The inhuman father showed every sign of joy on hearing this news; saying that nothing would exceed his pleasure if all his children died, and that, when the grave should receive the last, he would, as a demonstration of joy, make a bonfire of all that he possessed. And on the present occasion, as a further sign of his hatred, he refused to pay the slightest sum towards the funeral expenses of his murdered sons….
Beatrice, finding it impossible to continue to live in so miserable a manner, followed the example of her sister; she sent a well-written supplication to the Pope, imploring him to exercise his authority in withdrawing her from the violence and cruelty of her father. But this petition, which might, if listened to, have saved the unfortunate girl from an early death, produced not the least effect.
Francesco, having discovered this attempt on the part of his daughter, became more enraged, and redoubled his tyranny; confining with vigour not only Beatrice, but also his wife. At length, these unhappy women, finding themselves without hope of relief, driven to desperation, resolved to plan his death…. Beatrice communicated the design to her eldest brother, Giacomo, without whose concurrence it was impossible that they should succeed. This latter was easily drawn into consent, since he was utterly disgusted with his father, who ill-treated him, and refused to allow him a sufficient support for his wife and children…. Giacomo, with the understanding of his sister and mother-in-law, held various consultations and finally resolved to commit the murder of Francesco to two of his vassals, who had become his inveterate enemies; one called Marzio, and the other Olimpio: the latter, by means of Francesco, had been deprived of his post as castellan of the Rock of Petrella…. He [Francesco] received an honourable burial; and his family returned to Rome to enjoy the fruits of their crime. They passed some time there in tranquillity. But Divine Justice, which would not allow so atrocious a wickedness to remain hid and unpunished, so ordered it that the Court of Naples, to which the account of the death of Cenci was forwarded, began to entertain doubts concerning the mode by which he came by it, and sent a commissary to examine the body and to take informations….
The Pope, after having seen all the examinations and the entire confessions, ordered that the delinquents should be drawn through the streets at the tails of horses and afterward decapitated.
Many cardinals and priests interested themselves, and entreated that at least they might be allowed to draw up their defence. The Pope at first refused to comply, replying with severity, and asking these intercessors what defence had been allowed to Francesco when he had been so barbarously murdered in his sleep….
The sentence was executed the morning of Saturday the 11th of May. The messengers charged with the communication of the sentence, and the Brothers of the Consorteria, were sent to the several prisons at five the preceding night; and at six the sentence of death was communicated to the unhappy brothers while they were placidly sleeping. Beatrice, on hearing it broke into a piercing lamentation, and into passionate gesture, exclaiming, “How is it possible, O my God, that I must so suddenly die?” Lucretia, as prepared and already resigned to her fate, listened without terror to the reading of this terrible sentence, and with gentle exhortations induced her daughter-in-law to enter the chapel with her; and the latter, whatever excess she might have indulged in on the first intimation of a speedy death, so much the more now courageously supported herself, and gave every one certain proofs of a humble resignation. Having requested that a notary might be allowed to come to her, and her request being granted, she made her will, in which she left 15,000 crowns to the Fraternity of the Sacre Stimmate, and willed that all her dowry should be employed in portioning for marriage fifty maidens; and Lucretia, imitating the example of her daughter-in-law, ordered that she should be buried in the church of S. Gregorio at Monte Celio, with 32,000 crowns for charitable uses, and made other legacies; after which they passed some time in the Consorteria, reciting psalms and litanies and other prayers with so much fervour that it well appeared that they were assisted by the peculiar grace of God. At eight o’clock they confessed, heard mass, and received the holy communion. Beatrice, considering that it was not decorous to appear before the judges and on the scaffold with their splendid dresses, ordered two dresses, one for herself and the other for her mother-in-law, made in the manner of the nuns—gathered up, and with long sleeves of black cotton for Lucretia, and of common silk for herself, with a large cord girdle. When these dresses came, Beatrice rose, and, turning to Lucretia—”Mother,” said she, “the hour of our departure is drawing near; let us dress therefore in these clothes, and let us mutually aid one another in this last office.” Lucretia readily complied with this invitation, and they dressed, each helping the other, showing the same indifference and pleasure as if they were dressing for a feast….
The funereal procession passed through the Via dell’ Orso, by the Apollinara, thence through the Piazza Navona; from the church of S. Pantalio to the Piazza Pollarolla, through the Campo di Fiori, S. Carlo a Catinari, to the Arco de’ Conti Cenci; proceeding, it stopped under the Palace Cenci, and then finally rested at the Corte Savilla, to take the two ladies. When these arrived, Lucretia remained last, dressed in black, as has been described, with a veil of the same colour, which covered her as far as her girdle. Beatrice was beside her, also covered with a veil. They wore velvet slippers, with silk roses and gold fastenings; and, instead of manacles, their wrists were bound by a silk cord, which was fastened to their girdles in such a manner as to give them almost the free use of their hands. Each had in her left hand the holy sign of benediction, and in the right hand a handkerchief, with which Lucretia wiped her tears, and Beatrice the perspiration from her forehead. Being arrived at the place of punishment, Bernardo was left on the scaffold, and the others were conducted to the chapel. During this dreadful separation, this unfortunate youth, reflecting that he was soon going to behold the decapitation of his nearest relatives, fell down in a dreadful swoon, from which, however, he was at last recovered, and seated opposite the block….
While the scaffold was being arranged for Beatrice, and whilst the Brotherhood returned to the chapel for her, the balcony of a shop filled with spectators fell, and five of those underneath were wounded, so that two died a few days after. Beatrice, hearing the noise, asked the executioner if her mother had died well, and, being replied that she had, she knelt before the crucifix, and spoke thus: “Be thou everlastingly thanked, O my most gracious Saviour, since, by the good death of my mother, thou hast given me assurance of thy mercy towards me.” Then, rising, she courageously and devoutly walked towards the scaffold, repeating by the way several prayers with so much fervour of spirit that all who heard her shed tears of compassion. Ascending the scaffold, while she arranged herself, she also turned her eyes to Heaven, and thus prayed: “Most beloved Jesus, who, relinquishing thy divinity, becamest a man, and didst through love purge my sinful soul also of its original sin with thy precious blood; deign, I beseech thee, to accept that which I am about to shed, at thy most merciful tribunal, as a penalty which may cancel my many crimes, and spare me a part of that punishment justly due to me.” Then she placed her head under the axe, which, at one blow, was divided from her body as she was repeating the second verse of the psalm De profundis, at the words fiant aures tuæ. The blow gave a violent motion to her body, and discomposed her dress. The executioner raised the head to the view of the people; and in placing it in the coffin placed underneath, the cord by which it was suspended slipped from its hold, and the head fell to the ground, shedding a great deal of blood, which was wiped up with water and sponges…. The bodies of Lucretia and Beatrice were left at the end of the bridge until the evening, illuminated by two torches, and surrounded by so great a concourse of people that it was impossible to cross the bridge. An hour after dark, the body of Beatrice was placed in a coffin, covered by a black velvet pall richly adorned with gold: garlands of flowers were placed, one at her head, and another at her feet; and the body was strewed with flowers. It was accompanied to the church of S. Peter in Montorio by the Brotherhood of the Order of Mercy, and followed by many Franciscan monks, with great pomp and innumerable torches. She was there buried before the high altar, after the customary ceremony had been performed. By reason of the distance of the church from the bridge, it was four hours after dark before the ceremony was finished. Afterwards, the body of Lucretia, accompanied in the same manner, was carried to the church of S. Gregorio upon the Celian hill; where, after the ceremony, it was honourably buried.
Beatrice was rather tall, of a fair complexion, and she had a dimple on each cheek, which, especially when she smiled, added a grace to her lovely countenance that transported every one who beheld her. Her hair appeared like threads of gold; and, because they were extremely long, she used to tie it up, and when afterwards she loosened it, the splendid ringlets dazzled the eyes of the spectator. Her eyes were of a deep blue, pleasing, and full of fire. To all these beauties she added, both in words and action, a spirit and a majestic vivacity that captivated every one. She was twenty years of age when she died.
The Cenci: Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by William M. Rossetti (London 1878).