On the morning this day in 1599, the Cenci family — mother Lucrezia, son Giacomo, and immortal tragic heartthrob Beatrice — were put to death at Sant’Angelo Bridge for murdering the clan’s tyrannous father.
Francesco Cenci, the victim, was more accustomed to making victims of his own: detested around the Eternal City, he indulged his violent temper and fleshy lusts with the impunity of a wealthy cardinal’s son. By all accounts, he enjoyed pushing around his family, too.
This much is stipulated. What lies beyond is legend.
But the legend is why we’re dallying with Beatrice today, so we might as well begin there: in fear that her father would rape her, it goes, Beatrice tried to turn to the authorities, who let mean old dad walk on account of his connections. Desperate to protect herself from incest, Beatrice and family arrange to batter his gulliver and toss him over a balcony to make it look like suicide.
Slight problem: it didn’t look very much like suicide.
So the family was hauled in and tortured, and eventually Lucrezia and Beatrice (both beheaded) and Giacomo (quartered after suffering the mazzolatura of an incapacitating hammer blow to the head followed by gory lethal knifework by the executioner) all paid the price while the youngest child watched, spared death but condemned to life in the galleys.
(The papacy gobbled up the patricides’ estate, which puts a fine point on the ironically-named Pope Clement VIII‘s law-and-order stance on the appeal for mercy, and his subsequent edicts to quash public comment on the affair.)
Then Beatrice’s body — the part below the neck — contrived to disrobe when fumbled by the brethren taking it away for burial.
You’ve got to admit it’s pretty romantic. Some versions even hold that the responsible executioners died violently themselves within a month, or that a ghostly Beatrice returns to the scene of her demise on this anniversary.
And not a word of Italian fluency will be necessary to catch the gist of this excerpt from this 1969 Lucio Fulci film:
It’s a little too Romantic, as in capital-R.
While the case was a true sensation Rome at the turn of the 17th century, the legend as we know it was heavily constructed in the 19th century … and specifically Percy Bysshe Shelley, who heard the story in Italy* where it had persevered as local folklore. A girl who killed her despot-father, executed by the despotic agents of the Divine Father? You don’t get into the canon without knowing what to do with that kind of material.
And he had this charming painting of her to boot:
Shelley amped up the menaced-virginal-purity theme, made the bloodshed a lot more demure, and turned it into a long poem, “The Cenci” (available on Google Books, and on Bartleby.com) which in Melville’s description proceeds from putting its protagonist between the “two most horrible crimes possible to civilized humanity — incest and parricide.”
This doesn’t all actually turn out to be well supported: at a minimum, Shelley inflated an incest allegation of doubtful lineage into accomplished fact. Beatrice’s camp did not raise this claim until just before her execution, when it needed a high card for clemency. The loutish victim eventually got his own biographer, who strongly disputed the incest charges. (Francesco also sports his own Italian Wikipedia page.)
From Shelley’s influential quill** into the DNA of western literature: Stendahl tapped the vein, as did Artaud, and risorgimento figure Francesco Domenico Guerrazzi; both Melville and Hawthorne used that painting so captivating to Shelley as plot devices (Dickens loved the painting, too). American sculptor Harriet Hosmer worked Cenci’s complex sensuality in marble.
Remarkable how the tradition in its modern incarnation proceeds root and branch from Shelley’s apprehension of a single painting, and how his reading stamped itself upon the canvas for later observers — like Hawthorne, writing in his journal:
It is the very saddest picture that ever was painted, or conceived; there is an unfathomable depth and sorrow in the eyes; the sense of it comes to you by a sort of intuition. … It is the most profoundly wrought picture in the world; no artist did it, or could do it again. Guido may have held the brush, but he painted better than he knew. I wish, however, it were possible for some spectator, of deep sensibility, to see the picture without knowing anything of the subject or history; for no doubt we bring all our knowledge of the Cenci tragedy to the interpretation of the picture.
He wrote better than he knew: the painting is no longer attributed to Guido Reni, and it’s doubtful whether it’s a portrait of Beatrice at all. One wonders if it would retain its place in Hawthorne’s estimation as a local washer-woman modeling for an allegory.
* Apparently you can still crash at the same place Shelley first got hep to Cenci.
** Kick back with some polysyllabic literary analysis of Shelley’s Cenci stuff.
On this day..
- 1568: Ivan Fedorov, zemshchina boyar - 2020
- 1916: Yakub Cemil, Ottoman putschist - 2019
- 1911: Ernest Harrison, Sam Reed, and Frank Howard lynched - 2018
- 1627: Matthäus Ulicky, for communion - 2017
- 9: The Battle of Teutoburg Forest - 2016
- 1721: John Meff - 2015
- 1929: Homer Simpson - 2014
- 1970: Udilberto Vasquez Bautista, Peruvian popular saint - 2013
- 1942: Ten for Meir Berliner's murder of a Treblinka officer - 2012
- 1941: Eugene Johnson, the first electrocuted in Louisiana - 2011
- 1764: The Sirven family, in effigy - 2010
- 1941: Olga Kameneva, Christian Rakovsky, Maria Spiridonova and many others by the NKVD - 2009