1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cenci, Beatrice

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CENCI, BEATRICE (1577–1599), a Roman woman, famous for her tragic story; poetic fancy has woven a halo of romance about her, which modern historic research has to a large extent destroyed. Born at Rome, she was the daughter of Francesco Cenci (1549–1598), the bastard son of a priest, and a man of great wealth but dissolute habits and violent temper. He seems to have been guilty of various offences and to have got off with short terms of imprisonment by bribery; but the monstrous cruelty which popular tradition has attributed to him is purely legendary. His first wife, Ersilia Santa Croce, bore him twelve children, and nine years after her death he married Lucrezia Petroni, a widow with three daughters, by whom he had no offspring. He was very quarrelsome and lived on the worst possible terms with his children, who, however, were all of them more or less disreputable. He kept various mistresses and was even prosecuted for unnatural vice, but his sons were equally dissolute. His harsh treatment of his daughter Beatrice was probably due to his discovery that she had had an illegitimate child as the result of an intrigue with one of his stewards (A. Bertolotti, in his Francesco Cenci, publishes Beatrice’s will in which she provides for this child), but there is no evidence that he tried to commit incest with her, as has been alleged. The eldest son Giacomo was a riotous, dishonest young scoundrel, who cheated his own father and even attempted to murder him (1595). Two other sons, Rocco and Cristoforo, both of them notorious rakes, were killed in brawls. Finally Francesco’s wife Lucrezia and his children Giacomo, Bernardo and Beatrice, assisted by a certain Monsignor Guerra, plotted to murder him. Two bravos were hired (one of them named Olimpio, according to Bertolotti, was probably Beatrice’s lover), and Francesco was assassinated while asleep in his castle of Petrella in the kingdom of Naples (1598). Giacomo afterwards had one of the bravos murdered, but the other was arrested by the Neapolitan authorities and confessed everything. Information having been communicated to Rome, the whole of the Cenci family were arrested early in 1599; but the story of the hardships they underwent in prison is greatly exaggerated. Guerra escaped; Lucrezia, Giacomo and Bernardo confessed the crime; and Beatrice, who at first denied everything, even under torture, also ended by confessing. Great efforts were made to obtain mercy for the accused, but the crime was considered too heinous, and the pope (Clement VIII.) refused to grant a pardon; on the 11th of September 1599, Beatrice and Lucrezia were beheaded, and Giacomo, after having been tortured with red-hot pincers, was killed with a mace, drawn and quartered. Bernardo’s penalty, on account of his youth, was commuted to perpetual imprisonment, and after a year’s confinement he was pardoned. The property of the family was confiscated.

The romantic character of the history of this family has been the subject of poems, dramas and novels. Shelley’s tragedy is well known as a magnificent piece of writing, although the author adopts a purely fictitious version of the story. Nor is F. D. Guerrazzi’s novel, Beatrice Cenci (Milan, 1872), more trustworthy. The first attempt to deal with the subject on documentary evidence is A. Bertolotti’s Francesco Cenci e la sua famiglia (2nd ed., Florence, 1879), containing a number of interesting documents which place the events in their true light; cf. Labruzzi’s article in the Nuova Antologia, 1879, vol. xiv., and another in the Edinburgh Review, January 1879.