Many years ago, on a September night, after crossing Piazza Farnese, I found myself in Via di Monserrato. As I walked though it, my attention was caught by an unusual wall plate on the façade of a sumptuous palazzo.
There was written: “From this place where once stood the prison of Corte Savella, on 11th September 1599 Beatrice Cenci moved towards the gallows platform: exemplary victim of an unjust justice”. As I realized that it was exactly the Eleventh September, a strange airstream violently shook the old plane trees on the Tevere. The day after, moved by this coincidence, I started looking for news about the mysterious Beatrice “Victim of the unjust justice”.
An incredible, sad episode emerged. An episode that inspired notorious foreign writers such as, Stendhal, Shelley, Dumas, Artaud and that was eternized in the famous portrait attributed to Guido Reni, thus exceeding history to enter the legend. Who was this illustrious person, capable of crossing the national boundaries to become such an admired heroine? Beatrice Cenci was the daughter of count Francesco Cenci and Ersilia Santacroce.
The Cenci were a noble Roman family, one of the richest and influential of the papal Rome, a city who had reached the upmost splendor, thanks to papal patronages who had recruited the greatest artists of the moment to contribute to its magnificence. Francesco, at the death of his father – treasurer general of the Apostolic Chamber – inherited a noticeable fortune, but as he was a lustful and violent man, he squandered his resources to fix his crimes. He was once forced to pay a financial penalty of one hundred Ecus to be released and to clear his name from a terrible and ignominious charge of sexual abuses to some of his servants.
Mistreatments were mostly addressed to his relatives, particularly to his sons. Some witnesses referred that one of his grim desires was seeing all of his children buried. Giacomo, Cristoforo and Rocco, were sent to Salamanca University in Spain and lived in poverty. In order to come back to Rome, they had to beg for money in the streets. Rocco and Cristoforo died during violent fights. Antonina, the youngest of his daughters, asked the Pope to free her from her father’s oppression.
She asked to be sent in a monastery or to be given in marriage. Clemente VIII felt pity for her and gave her in marriage to a nobleman from Gubbio, Carlo Gabrielli, and forced Francesco to pay for a rich dowry.
When Beatrice came back after the death of her mother from the Monastery of Santa Croce in Montecitorio, aged fifteen, her beauty and grace started to flourish and to attract her father’s attention. Francesco hid his daughter from anyone’s eyes. He did not want any suitor to ask her in marriage and to be forced to pay for a conspicuous dowry. Also, he wanted all of her grace for himself.
Lucrezia, Beatrice stepmother, in order to save her stepdaughter from the monster-father, brought in the house Monsignore Guerra, a young man on his way to the religious career and representative in the papal Court, hoping to give her in marriage.
Francesco got to know about it and as he was pressed by creditors and legal actions, decided to leave secretly to the Rocca di Petrella Salto in the Abruzzese territory – property of the Colonna family – with Beatrice and Lucrezia, accompanied by the servant Marzio. Lucrezia and Beatrice were shut on the second floor of the lugubrious Rocca: they lived for a very long time as prisoners in an endless hell.
Beatrice suffered deprivation and sexual abuse, but eventually decided to write a letter to the Pope. As a result, count Cenci had to donate some of his properties to the church and deposit a substantial sum to the pontifical treasury. When evil reached its peak, the weak minds of the oppressed victims overflew with pain, and planned the most wicked vengeance to punish all those long years of subjugation and violence. Beatrice decided to plan the homicide of Francesco, with the complicity of her stepmother Lucrezia, the brothers Giacomo and Bernardo, the castellan Olimpio Calvetti and the blacksmith Marzio da Fioran – called the Catalan.
Francesco was killed on 9th September 1598 while he was sleeping, by Olimpio and Marzio, with two nail strokes inflicted with a hammer: the first to the eye and the second to the throat. The body was thrown from a tower of the castle on an underlying tree so that the wounds would seem to have been caused by branches. After the funeral service, the count was quickly buried in the local church of Santa Maria. The relatives, who did not take part to the funeral service, left the castle and came back to Rome, in their own palazzo. Beatrice recovered and in a few weeks she seemed to regain her beauty.
The illusion of impunity lasted shortly. Rumors and suspects, fed by the sinister fame of the count and by the hatred he had raised in his relatives, convinced the authorities to investigate on the real development of facts. An inquiry was requested by the duke Marzio Colonna – Lord of Petrella – by the viceroy of Naples Reign, Don Enrico di Gusman – count of Olivares – and by the Pope Clemente VIII. The corpse was exhumed and the fall was not considered as cause of the injuries. The laundrywoman who received the sheets covered in blood from Beatrice was questioned and the conspiracy came to light.
Olimpio Calvetti disclosed the plot and even though he managed to flee, he was murdered at the hands of Monsignor Mario Guerra, fearing he could confess the crime. Marzio da Fioran confessed under torture, but as he confronted Beatrice, he retracted and died shortly after because of the inflicted wounds.
Giacomo and Bernardo confessed and were locked in the prison of Tordinona, while Beatrice, regardless of Judge’s Moscati threats – in charge of her questioning – did not surrender. The judge was impressed and wrote a complete report to the Pope, who studied the records of the trial and feared that Judge Moscati could have been won by the beauty of the young woman and been too “soft” with his questionings. He decided then to entrust the management of the trial to a more inflexible judge.
This person, in fact, had no problem in tormenting Beatrice merciless ad torturam capillorum, hanging her by her hair. While she was hanging, the judge let Giacomo and Lucrezia enter the room and they eventually convinced her to confess. Once the proofs had been acquired, Beatrice and Lucrezia were led to the prison of Corte Savella.
The day after, all Rome shuddered in disdain: the Pope, once read everyone’s confession, sentenced them to death. The Cenci were found guilty and Beatrice and Lucrezia were sentenced to beheading, Giacomo was sentenced to quarter; Bernardo was the only one, due to his young age, who had his life spared. At six in the morning of Saturday, September 11, came the hour of pain and despair at Corte Savella.
The shouts of Beatrice where heard everywhere, when she was told that soon she would have been executed. She could not dress up. Lucrezia threw herself on her knees and prayed intensely, then she hugged the girl tenderly while suffocating her tears in despair. They found the strength to go to the chapel and when they got there, they put their selves in the hands of the Almighty. When the young woman put herself together and found her calm distinction, she called a notary to make a will.
She commanded that her body was buried in San Pietro in Montorio; she left three hundred thousand Francs to the Stimmatine. That money would have been necessary for the dowry of fifty poor young girls. At eight o’ clock they confessed, listened to the mass and received the Holy communion. Before attending mass, Beatrice refused to show herself with the rich garments they were wearing. She ordered two dresses, one for her and one for her mother.
These dresses were made like those of the nuns, with no decorations on the chest and on the shoulders, pleated with large sleeves. Beatrice’s dress was made of blue taffeta with a large rope at waist. When the dresses were brought in, Beatrice, who was on her knees, stood up and said to Madame Lucrezia: «Mother, the time of our passion approaches». Around nine in the morning, the company of Misericordia moved towards the gate of the prison with its great crucifix. The ensign stopped, the women got out, they worshipped the feet of the crucifix and then they set forth, one after the other. Beatrice’s veil was made of blue taffeta, just like her dress, and she had a long veil made of silver cloth on her shoulders. She had a particular grace, and everyone was moved as she walked slowly through the streets in the last rows of the procession. Lucrezia kept on crying; young Beatrice, instead, showed great courage.
The inferior part of Piazza di Ponte Sant’Angelo was so crowded with carriages and people, that the procession could barely cross it. The executioner took Madame Lucrezia Petroni: her hands tied on her back, not wearing anymore the veil on her shoulders. She appeared on the piazza accompanied by the ensign, her head covered in a black taffeta veil; there she reconciled with God and kissed the holy wounds.
When she was on the gallows platform and her black taffeta veil was removed, she suffered for being seen with her shoulders and chest uncovered. She looked at herself, looked at the axe, and, as a sign of resignation, she slowly raised her shoulders. Tears came to her eyes, and she said: «Oh my God! And you, my brothers, pray for my soul!» As the axe was getting ready for the young woman, a scaffolding loaded with curious people broke, and many people died. So they came into God’s view before Beatrice.
When Beatrice saw the ensign getting back towards the chapel to get her, she exclaimed: «Is my mistress and mother really dead?» She was told she was; she threw herself on her knees in front of the crucifix, and prayed intensely for her soul. Then she talked out loud to the crucifix. «My Lord, you came back for me, and I will follow you willingly.
I do not despair of your mercy for my enormous sin» Then she recited many psalms and orations – always in the praise of God. Eventually the executioner came in front of her with a rope and she said: «Free this soul that must reach immortality and eternal glory.»
She lifted up, said her payers, and once on the gallows platform, she put her neck under the axe, fixed herself perfectly, in order to avoid being touched by the executioner. Her moves were so quick, that the people could not see her shoulders and chest, when her taffeta veil was removed. Chronicles say that among the crowd there was also a young Lombard painter, recently arrived in the city. His name was Michelangelo Merisi – called Caravaggio. It took a very long time before the blow was dealt.
She invoked the name of Jesus Christ and the Holy Virgin and everything was accomplished. In the evening, a quarter past nine, the body of the young woman, dressed in her garments and crowned with plenty of flowers, was taken to San Pietro in Montorio. She was enchantingly beautiful: she seemed to be sleeping. She was buried in front of the high altar and in front of the Trasfiguration by Raffaello da Urbino. She was accompanied by fifty large church candles and by all the Franciscan friars of Rome.
During this tragedy there were countless people; looking in the distance, streets were full with carriages and people: windows and roofs were covered with curious people. The sun had been so burning on that day, that many people had lost conscience. An infinite number of them had a fever; and when everything was over and the crowd scattered, many people died of asphyxiation, others were squashed by the horses.
There was a great number of casualties. Beatrice Cenci, a person who inspires eternal regret, died at the age of seventeen; she was little, crowned with flowers, had a tiny mouth and blonde curly hair. While she was going to death, her hair fell on her eyes and gave her a certain grace and inspired compassion.
There are many legends lingering around the cruel, premature end of Beatrice. Every year, on the night of the Eleventh of September , her ghost seems to appear on the streets of the centre of Rome where her short earthly life was squandered.
Some say they have caught sight of Beatrice’s ghost among the crowd of lousy tourists that pour out at night in the enlightened streets of the centre; others think that in the cold winter nights, she has been seen along the dark docks of the Tevere, among the shadows of homeless people, trying to bring some comfort to the last and the excluded, waiting for her wandering soul to reach eternal freedom.