The portrait of Beatrice Cenci, by Guido Reni, is one of the so-called twelve great pictures of the world. She was the daughter of the Count Francesco Cenci. They lived in Rome. The Cenci Palace is still standing. The Count was vicious, cruel, and brutish from his youth up. He seemed to delight in expending his cruelty and brutality upon his wife, his children, and his servants. He was a most inhuman father. At the age of sixteen he married Ersilia Santa Croce; she was only four-teen. She lived twenty years. She had twelve children and died at the age of thirty-five. Nine years after her death the Count Francesco married Lucrezia Petroni, a widow. Beatrice at this time was sixteen years old. Lucrezia was not long in finding out the kind of a man she had married and the condition of affairs in the family. Beatrice and her step-mother soon became devotedly attached to each other. This made the Count very angry and both were treated with the greatest cruelty.
One of the visitors at the Cenci Palace was Guido Guerra. He was studying for the priesthood. To him Lucrezia and Beatrice told their pitiful story. He sympathized with them, finally fell in love with Beatrice, and was willing to give up the priesthood and marry her. Through spies, the Count heard of this. He was greatly enraged; threatened to kill the young man if he again entered the Pal-ace. Guido tried to carry Beatrice away, the plan failed, and the Count redoubled his cruelty to her.
One summer morning in 1598, the Count ordered his family to prepare for a journey to Castle Petrella. This castle, a lonely place, marked the boundary between the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples. It once belonged to the Colonna family. The Count, Lucrezia, Beatrice, Paola and Bernardino went to the castle. Here Beatrice was shut up in a dark room, allowed to speak to no one, constantly in terror of what might happen to her. Giacomo, her eldest brother, heard of this and decided to take matters for the relief of the family into his own hands. He and Guido Guerra, Beatrice’s lover, plotted to kill the Count. With the family at the castle were two servants, Marzio and Olympio, who had also suffered from the Count’s brutality. They were willing to commit the murder. The time chosen was the night of September 9, 1.598. The story goes that Lucrezia put opium in the Count’s wine, and that he fell into a deep sleep. Marzio and Olympio entered his room. Marzio struck him on the head with a hammer and Olympio stabbed him in the neck. They then dressed the body and tumbled it over a balcony into a kitchen garden below, making it appear that the Count had gone out on the balcony intoxicated and had fallen over. In the morning the servants discovered him. Lucrezia was called, and Beatrice was released from her prison. She was perfectly innocent of any knowledge of the crime. Some peasants were called to take the body into the church of Santa Maria Petrella. Giacomo was summoned from Rome. The Count was buried in the church with solemn obsequies. A few days after the funeral Giacomo took the family back to Rome. Soon after Paola, the youngest boy, died. There was now no one left of the family except Lucrezia, Giacomo, Beatrice and Bernardino, a boy of fourteen.
By and by a rumor was started that the Count had not died by accident, but had been murdered. The authorities ordered the body taken up. This was done and the crime discovered. The sudden disappearance of Marzio and Olympio looked suspicious, and the police were put upon their track. As yet no one suspected the family. Giacomo and Guido Guerra became alarmed, and hired two assassins to find and kill Marzio and Olympio. They succeeded in finding Olympio, but Marzio was still at liberty. He was finally arrested in Naples. He confessed the crime, and gave the names of his accomplices. Giacomo, Lucrezia, Beatrice and Bernardino were arrested. The brothers were put in prison and Lucrezia and Beatrice were kept under lock and key in the Palace; later they were taken to prison.
Guido Guerra, disguised as a charcoal burner, escaped out of the country. All the Cenci denied any knowledge of the crime and Marzio, when called to witness against them, retracted what he said in Naples, and died under torture for refusing to repeat the confession.
After the death of Marzio there was no further evidence and the court could not carry on the prosecution. The Cenci were now removed from the civil prison to the Castle of St. Angelo, the prison belonging to the church, and all further proceedings were in her hands. At this time Clement VIII. was Pope. Before his accession to the Papal throne, he was known as Cardinal Ippolito Aldobrandini. He was elected Pope on the 29th of January, 1592.
On the 6th day of August, 1599, by means of the most horrible torture known to the inquisition, Giacomo and Bernardino were made to confess. Two days later Lucrezia and Beatrice also confessed. Beatrice was put to a more terrible torture than all the others because she protested she was innocent. Those under torture often confessed to crimes of which they were entirely innocent. Public feeling ran high. Public sympathy was decidedly on the side of the accused, and there were murmurings against Clement and the Judges, who wished to put the entire family to death and confiscate their large estates. The best lawyers of the time took up the case, and appeared before Clement in defense of the accused. Among them was the famous advocate, Prospero Farinacci. Clement was above all authority. He was court, judge and jury, and would not at first allow any defense, but many of the noble families interfered, and he at last consented to listen to Farinacci, and for a time there was reason to hope he might pardon the Cenci. Just at this time, and unfortunately for them, Paola Santa Croce murdered his mother for her money and escaped to Brescia. Clement was greatly irritated at this, the times were evil, an example was called for, and he hardened his heart against the Cenci.
He summoned the Governor of Rome and ordered him to pass sentence of death upon them at once.
I quote the summing up of the sentence as Bruzzone gives it: > “We condemn Giacomo Cenci to the severest torture and the penalty of death, and that he should be drawn in a cart through the town to the usual place of Justice, his flesh to be torn the while with red hot pincers, and then to be knocked on the head by the executioner till he die, and his soul be separated from the body, and the latter, after being torn to pieces, to be exposed on the scaffold to public view.
“As regards Beatrice Cenci and Lucrezia Petroni Cenci, we also condemn them, and order them to the severest torture, and the penalty of death. They, according to custom, to be led to the same place of Justice, and there to be beheaded, so that they die and their souls be separated from their bodies.
“Lastly, as regards Bernardino, there being just reasons moving our mind to pity, we order that he be conveyed in the same cart as the condemned to the place of Justice, there to be present at the execution as above, of Giacomo and Beatrice, respectively his brother and sister, and Lucrezia, his step-mother, and after let him be taken back to prison where, for a year’s time, let him stay in close custody, and in durance vile, and from there let him pass to the galleys, there to row incessantly, so that his life be constant anguish, and death his only hope of relief. Moreover, we condemn each one of them to the confiscation of all his rightful property.”
On the 10th of September, 1599, the Cenci were told that the next day their sentence would be carried out. It was a sad day in Rome, for all classes were in sympathy with the Cenci, except Clement and his satellites. When the condemned left the prison the bells were tolled, and the drums rolled out their solemn call. The scaffold was erected directly in front of the Castle of St. Angelo. The sentence was carried out in all its horrible detail. Giacomo came first, Lucrezia next, then the beautiful Beatrice. She was dressed in white, and with her fair hair, and her pale face, Bruzzone describes her as looking like an angel. She ascended the scaffold with a firm step, knelt down, and with eyes turned heavenward cried out : “My God, I die innocent.” She would have said more, but the executioner brutally seized her and struck off her head. He picked it up and held it to the gaze of the crowd. A cry of horror broke from all.
At midnight, the body of Beatrice was carried away and buried in the church of San Pietro Montorio, on the Janiculum Hill. A large procession of mourners followed, bearing flowers and candles. The church of San Pietro Montorio stands on the spot where St. Peter was crucified.
Bernardino was imprisoned in the castle of St. Angelo until February, 1601. Then he was exiled into Tuscany, where he died in 1626.
The confiscation of the large possessions of the Cenci followed their slaughter.
A relative of the Pope bought a part of the property for a fictitious price. Cardinal Barbarini, afterward Pope Urban VIII., took possession of a large share. The Cardinal Scipione Borghese acquired the part which lay near his own property, and together it made the famous Villa Borghese, which has recently been bought by the Government and is now called Villa Umberto Primo.
Two hundred years after the death of Beatrice, so many pilgrims visited her tomb, the monks of the convent of San Onofrio reversed the slab, hiding the inscription, and thereby destroying, as they thought, all traces of her.
The traveler who wishes to visit her grave must go to San Pietro in Montorio, go to the high altar, and on the right side, at the foot of the altar steps, he will see a slab of white marble with no inscription. Under this stone Beatrice Cenci was buried.
Guido Reni, the last great Italian painter, was living in Rome at the time of the Cenci tragedy. Augustus Hare in his “Walks in Rome,” says : “One morning at an early hour Farinacci, Beatrice’s advocate, entered her cell in Savelli prison, and with him a young man about twenty-five. Farinacci talked with her for some time, while at a distance sat his companion sketching her face. Turning, she observed this; she seemed displeased. Farinacci explained that this was the famous painter, Guido Reni, who earnestly desired her picture ; she was at first unwilling, but finally consented. She said, ‘Signor Guido, from the fatality that surrounds me, you will judge me guilty. Perhaps my face will tell you I am not wicked. Your great name, and my sad story, may make my portrait interesting; and she added with touching simplicity : ‘The picture will awaken compassion, if you will write on one of its angles the word, “Innocente.” ‘ ”
The artist in a short time produced the picture which hangs in the Barbarini palace and which has been chosen as one of the twelve great pictures of the world, and which every pilgrim to Rome goes to see.
Hawthorne says of it : “In fact, the picture of Beatrice Cenci is the very saddest picture ever painted, or conceived. It involves an unfathomable depth of sorrow, the sense of which comes to the observer by a sort of intuition. It is infinitely heart-breaking to meet her glance and to know that nothing can be done to help or to comfort her.”
Pope Clement VIII., a few months after his butchery of the Cenci, commissioned Guido Reni to paint the Archangel Michael. He represents the moment when the Archangel and the angels have overcome that old serpent, the devil, and cast him out of the kingdom of heaven.
St. Michael stands with one foot planted on the neck of the devil. It soon began to be whispered about that in the face of the Arch-angel there was a resemblance to Beatrice Cenci, and in the face of the devil a something that suggested the face of Clement VIII. One of the Cardinals said to Guido Reni, “It is believed that you wanted to portray His Holiness in the picture of the devil.” “I exclaimed Guido. “Still,” began the Cardinal, “the devil” “Well,” broke in Guido, “is that my fault if the devil resembles the Pope?”
The picture is over the first altar on the right in the church of the Capuccini monks. A copy in mosaic is in St. Peter’s church.
( Originally Published 1912 )
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