A Woman to Know: Beatrice Cenci

Her eyes, which we are told were remarkable for their vivacity, are swollen with weeping and lustreless, but beautifully tender and serene. — Percy Bysshe Shelley

Her eyes, which we are told were remarkable for their vivacity, are swollen with weeping and lustreless, but beautifully tender and serene. — Percy Bysshe Shelley

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1599, Beatrice’s father, the wealthy and venerable Francisco Cenci, fell from his castle balcony. When the Pope’s investigators showed up to the family compound in the Roman countryside, his family feigned mourning and suggested possible causes of death. First, they claimed his fall was an accident; then, they floated the idea of a possible suicide.

But under torture from the papal police, Beatrice confessed to the crime. Her father had been sexually abusing her for years and behaving violently toward other members of the family. In 1598, Beatrice reached her breaking point. She begged for help from her family and two loyal servants. Together, the group conspired to murder Francisco and end his reign of terror on the family. They drugged him, then bludgeoned him to death and threw his body over the balcony.

Beatrice, her brothers and her stepmother faced a sensational trial. The public cried for mercy, demanding the Pope be swayed by the abuse the family endured under Francisco. As Alberto Moravia imagined Beatrice saying:

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.

But despite her impassioned testimony, Beatrice was sentenced to death. She was beheaded on the Sant’Angelo Bridge, with her brother and stepmother beside her. Her youngest brother was sentenced to life in slavery.

Some historians posit the Pope resisted the public outcry and went through with the executions because he feared copycat killings in other noble families. Others say he wanted to seize the Cenci property for the Church (which he eventually did).

The story of Beatrice went on to inspire Romantic poets and artists, and as Roman legend has it, her ghost haunts the bridge on which she was executed.

(image via The Getty Museum)

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