Friday, October 12, 2012


It is a story all too familiar; it is a story that feeds our sense of justice and horrifies us at the same time.

Francesco Cenci was a Renaissance nobleman; however, his bloodline did nothing to ensure his moral and ethical behavior (does it ever). Not only did Francesco abuse his wife (there were two), his torturous, indecent behavior he vexed upon his offspring as well, especially the young and beautiful Beatrice. His licentious lifestyle, combined with a vicious disposition, brought him to the attention of papal justice on more than one occasion, but as the dictates of the times held sway (giving lenience to the higher socially ranked), he was never truly punished as he ought to have been, spending no more than a night or two in prison. But justice found its way.

In 1598, in the Cenci household (a mansion in the Regola district of Rome), there lived four other people under the duress of the master, his daughter Beatrice, her brother Giacomo, Francesco’s second wife Lucrezia, and Lucrezia’s son Bernardo. It was, to use a modern term, a dynamically dysfunctional household. Though multiple opinions differ, Francesco was either on the verge of committing incestuous rape upon his daughter Beatrice or already had (there are theories that he had, that she reported him, and he had beaten her dreadfully for it, before abusing her once more), when those of the household united and prescribed the justice upon Francesco that the pope failed to do.

There are two descriptions of the vigilante-style castigation that the four other Cenci inflicted upon Francesco; both are equally as vicious, both—perhaps—equally warranted:

One theory holds that they first attempted to drug him and when that failed they bludgeoned him to death with a hammer and tossed his body over a balcony in an attempt to make it appear like an accident.

The second (and a personal favorite) is that they drugged him, stabbed him with a lengthy nail through the eye and throat, and then hid the body.

Whatever their method, they were found out and all four were arrested. Unlike the pretense of justice inflicted upon Francesco while he was alive, a tribunal found all four guilty and sentenced them to death. But, as was the case in that era, the community knew all about Francesco’s disgusting behavior, and something akin to a small riot arose in response to the finding. Fearing other such upheaval’s—other familial imposed acts of justice—Pope Clement VIII commuted the sentence to September 11, 1599.

It was on the Sant’Angelo Bridge where the scaffold was built in those days; it was across this bridge that Beatrice was carted on the day of her death. Her step-mother, having fainted along the way, was beheaded in her unconscious state. Her brother Giacomo was beaten with a mallet, knocked unconscious, and so too went to his death unknowingly. The young boy, Bernardo, though tortured was released (losing any property that may have been his by right as the only surviving family member, and disappeared into the oblivion of unknown humanity).

It was only Beatrice—Beatrice that suffered the most at the hands of her father—that was fully aware when her head was put upon the block, when it was severed with the fierce slash of a sword.

It is Beatrice who, it is said, walks the bridge before the Castel Sant’Angelo on the night of September 10/11, a ghostly decapitated specter, carrying her head in the crook of her arm.

Beatrice Cenci has inspired works of art, plays, essays, films, and books from the moment of her death to as recently as 2011.

Injustice is a ghost in itself.


Vicki Kondelik said...

I was so glad to see this post! I'm writing a novel about Beatrice Cenci. I love your novels The Secret of the Glass and The King's Agent; I reviewed The Secret of the Glass for Historical Novels Review. By the way, Bernardo was Francesco's son by his first wife, Ersilia. Francesco and Lucrezia didn't have any children together, but Lucrezia had six children by her first marriage.

Donna Russo Morin said...

Thanks so much, Vicki, for your kind words and your interest in my work and this post. I can certainly see how Beatrice would make an extraordinary protagonist for a novel. I wish you the best. Please let me know your progress.