The Spirit of Beatrice Cenci - A Tale of Terrible Injustice in Ancient Rome
Just a stone’s throw away from St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican City is the Ponte Sant’Angelo. Today, this bridge is one of the famous tourist attractions in the city of Rome. Yet, this bridge hides a dark secret that few who walk upon it would realize.
For several centuries the Ponte Sant’Angelo was one of the sites of choice for public executions, as well as for the exposure of the bodies of the executed, by the papacy. According to tour guides in the city, one of the victims of papal justice still haunts the Ponte Sant’Angelo today, wandering around the bridge with her severed head. This is said to be the spirit of Beatrice Cenci, legendary figure to the people of Rome.
A portrait of Beatrice Cenci attributed to Guido Reni. Public Domain
The History and Legend of Cenci
Beatrice Cenci was born in 1577 into a rich Italian aristocratic family. Her father, Francesco Cenci was the son of the treasurer general of the Apostolic Chamber. A brutal man, Francesco is said to have abused his first wife, Ersilia Santa Croce, mistreated his sons, and raped Beatrice on multiple occasions. With his great wealth, Francesco was also able to indulge in his violence and lust outside his family with impunity, thus earning him the hatred of the people of Rome. Eventually, his criminal actions (not the ones inflicted on his family though) landed him in trouble with the papal authorities. Yet, as Francesco was a nobleman, and a wealthy one at that, he was treated leniently, and was merely fined and imprisoned for several months.
While Francesco was in prison, his children attempted to escape from his tyranny. Beatrice’s older sister, Antonina, succeeded in her petition to the pope requesting either to be allowed to marry without her father’s consent or to join a convent. The pope consented with the former, and Francesco was forced to pay a hefty dowry when he was freed from prison. It was said Francesco was extremely angry at this, and fearing that Beatrice might pull off the same trick, Francesco decided to move her. He sent Beatrice, his second wife Lucrezia, and his youngest son Bernardo to the family’s country castle at La Petrella del Salto which is situated in the Abruzzi Mountains to the northeast of Rome.
The account varies, and according to other sources, Beatrice reported her father’s domestic violence to the authorities. The authorities, however, did not take any action, and when Francesco discovered his daughter’s plea for help, he sent her to La Petrella del Salto.
- Living in a Man's World: The Untimely & Brutal Death of Hypatia
- The dramatic death of Cleopatra – was it really suicide?
- Elizabeth Bathory – 16th century deranged serial killer or victim of betrayal?
- Tracing the origins of a mysterious ancient Queen of Ethiopia
In the seclusion country castle, and away from the hustle and bustle of Rome, Francesco grew even bolder in his perversities, and the two women suffered in silence. In desperation, Beatrice wrote to her brother, Giacomo (who had cut ties with his father and ran away) for help. This was found out by her father, who punished Beatrice by whipping her mercilessly. It is thought that Beatrice decided the only way to escape was to take justice into her own hands and murder her father.
Beatrice was enlisted the help of two of the castle’s servants in her murder plot. One of them was a bribed servant, while the other was her secret lover. On the night of the murder, Beatrice drugged Francesco’s wine, and when he was fast asleep, she ordered the servants to strike his head. After that, they threw him off the balcony in an attempt to make it look like an accident. As no one believed that Francesco’s death was an accident, Beatrice was soon caught and imprisoned.
While it was unclear whether Lucrezia, and brothers Bernardo and Giacomo were also Beatrice’s partners in crime, they were also suspected of murdering Francesco. The bribed servant attempted to escape, only to be killed by a cousin of the Cencis. Beatrice’s secret lover was imprisoned, and tortured, though he died without telling anything. Having been tortured on the rack, the four Cencis confessed to the crime, were implicated for the murder of Francesco Cenci, and sentenced to death.
Painting, The Imprisonment of Beatrice Cenci, based on the legend. 19 th century. Public Domain
The people of Rome are said to have protested against the sentence, and obtained a short postponement of the execution. Pope Clement VIII, however, denied mercy, arguing that it would become a precedent for pardoning the crime of patricide.
On the 11 of September 1599, Lucrezia and Beatrice were beheaded on the Pont Sant’Angelo, while Giacomo, being a man, had his head smashed with a mace and was then drawn and quartered. Only the young Bernardo was spared, but was sent to the galleys as a slave, after he was forced to witness the execution of his family.
Ponte Sant'Angelo Bridge - Bridge of St. Angelo, Rome. Wampile/Wikimedia Commons
The story of Beatrice Cenci does not end with her execution. Centuries later, Beatrice’s tale and the injustices she faced became immortalized in art and literature, including Percy Bryce Shelley’s depiction of the tragic heroine in his 1819 verse-drama, The Cenci . The story of Beatrice perhaps strikes a chord in our hearts as it is a tale that involves the crimes perpetrated without regard for the law by those in power, the injustices suffered by the victims who are of a lower social rank, and the price paid by those who dared to take justice into their own hands.
Harper, E., 2014. The Femme Fatale Whose Tragic End Festers in the History of Rome. [Online]
Available at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/beatrice-cenci-haunts-rome
Headsman, 2008. 1599: Beatrice Cenci and her family, for parricide. [Online]
Available at: http://www.executedtoday.com/2008/09/11/1599-beatrice-cenci-parricide/
murderpedia.org, 2015. Beatrice Cenci. [Online]
Available at: http://murderpedia.org/female.C/c/cenci-beatrice.htm
Nicholl, C., 1998. Screaming in the Castle: The Case of Beatrice Cenci. [Online]
Available at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v20/n13/charles-nicholl/screaming-in-the-castle-the-case-of-beatrice-cenci