IT may safely be asserted that the best known picture by Guido is the head of Beatrice Cenci, in the Barberini Palace, at Rome, and it is also without doubt one of the most widely famous portraits ever painted perhaps the most famous.
Shelley’s tragedy of ” The Cenci,” and the words of Hawthorne and Dickens have done much to fix the touching face in the memories of English-speaking people. Hawthorne thought “no other such magical effect can ever have been wrought by pencil,” and named it “the very saddest picture ever painted or conceived ; ” and Dickens called it “a picture almost impossible to be forgotten.”
Shelley wrote that “The portrait of Bea-trice 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 re-pressed, 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.”
There are two forms of the tradition which relates that Guido painted the portrait of Beatrice Cenci just before her execution. The firstwhich has been adopted by the artist who painted our picture affirms that Guido drew the head of the condemned girl in her cell ; the second has it that he made a sketch of Beatrice while she was on her way to the scaffold.
One dislikes to aid in destroying illusions so long and so widely accepted, but regard for truth forces us to point out that Guido could not have painted the portrait of Beatrice Cenci, as she was put to death on September 11, 1599, and the painter did not go to Rome until several years after that time. Furthermore, it is highly improbable that the picture represents Beatrice Cenci at all, one weighty reason for this being that, as Sweetser claims, it does not agree in various important particulars with the description given of her in a contemporary manuscript in the Cenci archives. No reference to the portrait has been found in any book or document dated previous to the nineteenth century. The learned Signor Bertolotti, director of the state archives in Rome, could find no mention of the portrait in the old catalogue of the Barberini collection made in 1604, nor in any of the numerous catalogues of other Roman galleries, which he examined with tire-less pertinacity. No one knows how or when it was first reputed to be the portrait of the ill-fated heroine of Shelley’s tragedy.
Some critics go farther and aver that Guido did not paint the picture, pointing out that none of the contemporary biographers of Guido mention it, which would be singular if it were really the work of the master. Malvasia, the painter’s intimate friend, gives a long list of his pictures, including those then in the Colonna and Barberini Palaces, but makes no allusion to a work of this character. Thomas Adolphus Trollope, a brother of the famous novelist and long a resident of Italy, believes it, however, to be by Guido, and contends that it is the head of a favorite model which appears in others of the master’s works, notably in his celebrated fresco of “Aurora,” in the Rospigliosi Palace.
These vexed questions may never be settled, but the century-old popularity of this exquisite face will probably not diminish, and the so-called “Beatrice Cenci” still be the object of many a pilgrimage.