Beatrice Cenci. Portrait attributed to Guido Reni. Image via Wikimedia Commons
September 11th 1599 – Rome
Thousands of Romans make their way to the Ponte Sant Angelo, close to Saint Peter’s Basilica, with the intention of watching an entire family die. Most public executions were well attended with citizens keen to see justice done. Watching infamous criminals meet their bloody fates was widely considered to be an excellent form of street entertainment, a thrillingly morbid diversion from work and the authorities were satisfied that executions served as a deterrent to any potential wrong doers in the throng. Just as today, criminals could gain immense notoriety and a strange sort of celebrity. Whether the condemned were despised or grudgingly admired, their deaths provided an excellent opportunity to see renowned sinners up close.
On this particular occasion the mood of the crowds was remarkably less buoyant than usual. Several eyewitnesses describe the tone of the day as sombre. Beatrice and her family were undoubtedly guilty of the crime committed and yet those in attendance were behaving like mourners. Many carried candles and little crosses to leave by the bodies. There was no ebullience that day, rather an atmosphere of melancholy and dissent.
So why did the execution of a noblewoman who had confessed to orchestrating the murder of her own father evoke such sympathy?
The story starts with Francesco Cenci, the illegitimate son and heir of Cristoforo Cenci, a man who had made his family rich by embezzling Papal money whilst working as a comptroller at the Papal Court. Having married Francesco’s mother Beatrice Arias on his deathbed, Cristoforo died when Francesco was 12. The boy was brought up by his mother who had hastily married a lawyer. Francesco inherited an enormous fortune that included country estates in the Abbruzzi region and two Roman palazzos. He developed a sadisitic arrogance having already been taken to court for attacking a man the previous year. His tutor suggested Francesco should marry young in an attempt to quash his developing habits of frequenting brothels and “excessive” masturbation. This led to Francesco, aged 14 marrying Ersilia Santacroce, his tutor’s niece.
Ersilia seems to have been unable to satisfy the sexual needs of her husband who was frequently unfaithful to her. She did however bear several children, half of whom survived. She died following a difficult labour and the baby, a girl named Francesca, also died shortly after.
Her surviving children were
- Cristoforo (it appears that Francesco and Ersilia’s first child had been called Cristoforo but the child did not survive infancy. The second child named Cristoforo survived into adulthood.)
During his marriage to Ersilia Francesco’s violent tendencies developed.
He was so brutal to his employees that peasants on his estate near Nemi were frequently on the brink of insurgency. Such were the accusations that he decided to hide in Aquila. He was arrested and imprisoned in the Castel Sant Angelo. To buy his freedom (and rid himself of troublesome peasants) Francesco decided it would be best to sell off the estates in 1571.
He was frequently charged with beating his servants and often jailed for violence towards household staff. In 1577 Francesco was charged with having beaten a servant named Maria. Francesco had flown into a rage when Maria had apparently misunderstood his instructions. Maria testified that Francesco had savagely beaten her with a broom handle and had only ceased to attack her when he believed her to be dead. She was unable to move, eat or talk for three days following the attack.
More seriously, Francesco was also often charged and sometimes jailed for his sexual perversions. His first sodomy trial was held in 1570 (although connections with influential cardinals seem to have gotten him released without a fine) and he was regularly accused for his ‘unnatural vices.’
Homosexuality at the time was an offence punishable by death, usually those found guilty were burnt at the stake. Even if homosexuality had been legal and tolerated, Francesco was not accused of having loving sexual relationships with men. He showed no tenderness and was brutal in his quest for gratification. His partners, male and female, were often young, vulnerable and in his employ, completely dependent on him for their livelihoods. Francesco Cenci was not above using violence and manipulation to get what he wanted sexually and he abused men and women indiscriminately. Stable boys whom he’d forced himself upon were often seen with scratches and bruises on their faces.
Following the death of Ersilia in 1584 the two girls were sent to be brought up in a convent. The boys were practically ignored and their education neglected. Francesco grew increasingly sadistic and the fact that he only seemed to be punished for his crimes with easily affordable fines made him bolder and more arrogant.
In 1591, unable to stand living in the same house as his son Giacomo, Francesco moved to the second Cenci palace in Rome. Seemingly lonely, he brought Antonina, Beatrice and Rocco to live with him.
In 1593 Francesco remarried, choosing a plump widow named Lucrezia Petroni. Lucrezia was 38 and had six children she was struggling to support. She must have been desperate to consider marrying Francesco, who, whilst fabulously rich, was notorious for his wickedness. After their marriage Francesco reneged on his promises to provide his stepchildren with an education and attempted to convince his new bride to let his mistress move in to the marital home. Lucrezia’s refusal seems to be one of the only occasions where she stood up for herself. Francesco did not like strong willed women. His eldest daughter Antonina was only able to marry after begging the Pope to save her from her father, offering to become a nun rather than stay with Francesco.
By 1594 Francesco Cenci was almost permanently in court or imprisoned, accused by many in his household or rape and physical abuse. Francesco attempted to shift blame onto his son Giacomo, claiming that Giacomo wanted his father in prison in order to inherit the family fortune. Francesco also accused Giacomo of plotting to murder him for his money, even though Francesco had written a will leaving Giacomo the minimum amount required by law.
Once freed in 1595 Francesco retired to Petrella Salto in the Abbruzzi mountains, two days ride from Rome. He took his wife Lucrezia and his daughter Beatrice with him. The castle there was an imposing fortress. Lucrezia and Beatrice were confined to chambers with high, barred windows that one could only look out of if stood on a chair. The doors had four locks and the rooms were poorly lit. Food was served to the women through a lockable hatch at the bottom of a door. One of their ladies-in-waiting described later how she aged ten years during the 18 months she spent incarcerated with Lucrezia and Beatrice.
On occasion Francesco would return to Rome, such as upon the death of his son Cristoforo who had died whilst fighting over a prostitute. In his absence the Cenci women were looked after by Olympio Calvetti. Calvetti ran the castle and lived there with his wife and children. Paolo and Bernardo Cenci, the two youngest children, were also briefly kept at Petrella but managed to escape back to Rome. Bernardo went to live under the protection of his brother Giacomo, Paolo died. Rocco had been killed in a duel in 1594, leaving Giacomo as the only sibling old enough to be able to help his sister and step-mother. Whether he was unwilling or unable to help them is unknown, but the ladies remained imprisoned for over two years.
By the summer of 1597 the two women were contemplating how they could escape.They were able to convince their captor Olympio to take messages to Giacomo in Rome. A new employee named Marzio Catalano, horrified by what he saw, was also used as a secret messenger. A letter from Beatrice to her brothers was intercepted by Francesco in December 1597. He immediately travelled to Petrella intent on punishing his daughter for her audacity. She tried to deny ever writing any letters which enraged Francesco even more.
He thrashed his daughter with a bull-pizzle (a whip made from a bull’s penis) until she was bloody and for the next three days kept her locked in solitary confinement. Her ladies-maid later testified that Francesco would visit the cell alone and only return ‘when satisfied.’
Rumours of enforced incest were starting to grow, further fuelled when maids report that Lucrezia had fled the bedroom she shared with Francesco and Beatrice, distraught. Francesco dragged Lucrezia back to take part in/witness whatever was happening behind the closed doors.
Later, under torture, Beatrice would allude that she had in fact, to her shame, lost her virginity to Olympio. Perhaps she had deliberately seduced him in order to get him to help her or whether Olympio had named sex as his price for his services we’ll never know. Perhaps the attraction was mutual and genuine and her shame derived from being an unmarried woman sleeping with a married man. Whatever the true nature of their sexual relationship, Olympio was increasingly involved as the plot evolved from one of escape to one of murder. Olympio was sent to visit Giacomo in Rome and after much discussion returned to the castle with a vial of poison. Unfortunately, wary of assassination, Francesco had decided to only eat food that was tasted by someone else first, and he chose Lucrezia and Beatrice for this. Poison had to be ruled out.
In September 1598 Francesco was ill and bed-bound for a while. Olympio recruited Marzio to help him kill Francesco whilst he was vulnerable. They were, however, nervous. Beatrice reprimanded them for their hesitance and declared that if necessary she would murder her father herself. Humiliated the two men entered the bedchamber and murdered Francesco Cenci in his bed.
They dressed the corpse and dragged it to the balcony, hauled it up and over the railing. Beneath was a large, rocky area that was used as a rubbish dump. Olympio and Marzio then removed some planks on the balcony floor to make it look as if Francesco had fallen through a hole to his death. Beatrice gave the bloodied sheets to a local laundress claiming that they were her own and that she was menstruating. Olympio then set about spreading the rumour amongst the locals that a dreadful, fateful accident had occurred whilst the women raised the alarm. Marzio, terrified, fled. The body was briefly examined and the wounds initially blamed on the fall.
Beatrice arranged a funeral but neither she nor Lucrezia attended, raising eyebrows. Gossip started to spread that a few tree branches could not cause the immense amount of damage found on the corpse, particularly one collapsed eye socket. The body of Francesco was laid out for such a short amount of time that further examination was impossible. Furthermore, the hole in the balcony did not look big enough for a large man to have fallen through even if the wood had, as Beatrice claimed, been rotten. Giacamo and Bernardo arrived from Rome and as soon as Giacomo had claimed the estates the group fled to Rome and away from the increasingly hostile gossip.
Rumours did reach Rome, however. The death of Francesco Cenci was investigated in November and the family members were individually questioned. They had had enough time to straighten out their stories, but were confined to house arrest. Knowing that investigators would eventually visit Petrella, Olympio returned to hide evidence. He widened the hole in the balcony floor. He ordered his wife Plautilla to destroy the bloodied mattress. She chose to hide the mattress instead, perhaps because she wanted it to be found and for her errant husband to be punished for his adultery as well as the murder. The mattresses were indeed found and locals pointed out that the balcony hole was now bigger than before.
Francesco was exhumed and examined once again. The eye socket, previously explained as a gash from a tree branch, was now determined to be a wound from a small axe.
Beatrice, Lucrezia, Giacomo, Marzio and Olympio were charged with conspiracy and murder. Olympio fled as Marzio had done. Marzio Catalano was apprehended and imprisoned in Rome, where he confessed (probably under torture) to parts of the plot, which was enough to lead t the arrests of Giacomo and Bernardo. Fearful of what Olympio may say if tortured like Marzio, Giacomo sent family servants to murder him where he was hiding with Plautilla and his children near Terni. This was to be a mistake. News spread of the headless corpse of Olympio and the servant was arrested. Authorities found a distraught Plautilla, who despite everything seems to have been genuinely heartbroken at the death of her cheating husband. She blamed the Cenci family for his death.
The Cenci family were now subjected to torture. This was incredibly rare for noble families and could only be administered with permission of the Pope. If the family were found guilty the Pope would be able to seize their entire fortune (mostly gained from embezzlement from the Vatican anyway) and this may be why he granted permission for torture to be used.
Both Giacomo and Lucrezia named Beatrice as the instigator of the plot. This is not surprising, torture victims would often say anything under duress. Beatrice herself is described as behaving with incredible bravery under torture and yet even she eventually broke down.
During the trial the family were defended by a notorious lawyer called Prospero Farinaccio who was not popular with the Vatican. He made much of the unbearable living conditions inflicted on the women, including allegations of incestuous rape. Rome, having always been aware of the wickedness of Francesco, were now appalled as the monstrous details emerged. Sympathy for Beatrice and Lucrezia grew. The Pope, one eye on the lucrative Cenci estates, insisted on describing Francesco Cenci as ‘a most wretched father and most unhappy husband’ to have had the fate of being murdered by his own family.
All three were found guilty. A terrible punishment was decided by what the Pope called a terrible crime. Patricide, he declared, was one of the worst crimes one could commit. Rome, however, saw the Cenci family as pitiful survivors of a monstrous patriarch.
On the 11th September 1599 Giacomo and Bernardo Cenci were taken from the Tordinona Prison on a cart and paraded through the streets of Rome. Giacomo was shirtless and his skin was slowly torn off with red hot pincers. The procession made its way to the Via Santa Maria di Monserrato and Lucrezia and Beatrice were brought out of their prison to join Giacomo and Bernardo. The ladies had to travel by foot, however. People crowded at windows and on balconies to watch the group being led to their execution. Women cried loudly and many people followed the procession with a sad quietness.
By the time the group reached the Ponte Sant Angelo there was a muffled, stony silence. The space was crammed with spectators. Some fell into the river and drowned, nearly one hundred others were injured in a crush of people that ended in nine deaths.
After private prayers in a small nearby chapel the family were brought out to the scaffold. Bernardo was brought out first. He was not condemned to die as he had not been a part of the conspiracy. His crime, the Pope had declared, had to have kept silent once he had learned what his sister and brother had done. Therefore he was to stand on the scaffold and watch them die, up close. He was 18.
Lucrezia was next. She was terrified that she fainted on the scaffold and was unconscious as her head was chopped off. Beatrice met her fate with a calm composure. The crowd was silently impressed with her bravery and her beauty. She was seen as a heroine for enduring her father and then torture with grace and poise. As far as Rome was concerned, this wasn’t the execution of a wicked murderer, it was the martyrdom of an innocent young woman. It took the executioner a single stroke to remove her head. She was 21 years old.
The Executioner’s Sword that killed Beatrice Cenci – Museo Criminologico, Rome
Giacomo, weakened already, was last. After making a short speech exonerating Bernardo of all blame, he knelt at the block. Giacomo was not beheaded like his stepmother and sister. He was instead bludgeoned to death with a large mallet. He was then butchered like an animal and the pieces of his body were displayed on meat hooks suspended from the gallows.
Bernardo, who had fainted several times, was then escorted back to prison. The bodies were left where they were until 11pm, displayed on the gallows so that people who had not been able to watch the execution could still view the results.
So many candles and crosses were left that the gallows looked like a shrine. The corpse of Giacomo was eventually reassembled and buried in the church of San Tommaso ai Cenci. Lucrezia was buried in a church dedicated to San Gregorio. Beatrice was carried down the Vi Giulia to San Gregorio della Divina Pieta. Thousands joined the torchlit procession and the church was filled with donated flowers and candles. Mourners held a vigil over the body for several hours. Beatrice was buried in an unmarked plot, her head placed beside her body on a silver platter.
Legend has it that two of the executioners met grisly fates soon afterwards. Within a fortnight Mastro Bracca had died, plagued by nightmares of the grisly deeds he had been required to carry out, and after another two weeks Mastro was stabbed to death at Porta Castello.
Beatrice, more than any of the conspirators, captured the hearts and minds of Rome. She became a legend, one that captivated artists and poets for centuries after her tragic life and brutal death.
Ponte Sant’Angelo – site of numerous Papal executions including that of the Cenci family
Modern visitors flock to the Bridge of Angels for the beautiful views of the Castel Sant Angelo and the River Tiber, not to mention the lovely statuary and yet very few tourists realise what sad events played out here. It’s a sorry tale that still fascinates and horrifies today.