Poor Beatrice suffered many barbarities at her inhuman father’s hands. Fearing that she would appeal, like her sister, to the pope, he kept her constantly locked up and frequently beat her. With the connivance of her stepmother, she contrived to send a petition to the pope, but the holy father declined to be friendly. About this time a young priest, Guido Guerra, who had not as yet taken the vows, fell in love with Beatrice and she returned his affection, but Francesco Cenci altogether disapproved of the attachment and drove Guido Guerra away, furiously threatening to kill him if he dared to reopen communications with the family. Guerra after this tried to carry Beatrice off, but failed and further exasperated her father, who now abruptly left Rome, removing with his family to the castle of Petrella, a remote mountain stronghold near Aquila, on the frontier of the Neapolitan states, where he held Beatrice a close prisoner in a dark dungeon. But the measure of his iniquities was nearly full, and dire retribution was at hand.
Maddened by his ill-usage, his wretched victims plotted to compass his death. Giacomo Cenci, the eldest son, joined with Guido Guerra, Beatrice’s lover, and with two hired assistants found among Francesco’s vassals—all of whom loathed their inhuman master—the manner of the murder was quickly arranged. Francesco was first drugged with opium by his wife Lucrezia, and when sleeping soundly the assassins approached him, but hesitated to strike while he was thus unconscious. Beatrice had followed them into his room and upbraiding them for their cowardice, declared that she would do the deed herself. When at last they fell to their murderous work, they despatched Francesco by driving a nail through his temples. The corpse was then dressed, carried out to an open gallery and thrown down upon the branches of an elder tree growing in the garden below. It was thought that when the body was found next day it would be supposed that the dead man had fallen from the gallery in the dark. This was the charitable conclusion arrived at. No suspicion was expressed of foul play; the two women Lucrezia and Beatrice lamented loudly and after a brief period of mourning, the family returned to Rome.
Several months passed before justice intervened. The story of accidental death began to be doubted. The Neapolitan authorities communicated with the Roman, inquiries were set on foot and the theory of murder was first broached, being justified presently by the medical evidence forthcoming on the disinterment of the corpse. Guerra, the priest, becoming alarmed, tried to put the servants, who had actually committed the crime, beyond giving evidence by taking their lives. One indeed was killed, the other escaped but surrendered himself and made full confession. The case was now clear against the Cenci family as well as Guido Guerra, who fled across the frontier disguised as a charcoal burner. At this point the two brothers, Giacomo and Bernardo, were imprisoned in the Corte Savella, the common gaol, while Beatrice and Lucrezia were detained in the Cenci palace in Rome. The servant who had been arrested in Naples was brought to Rome for examination, but would not implicate Beatrice, who had been persistent in her denial, declaring that so beautiful a girl was incapable of a crime. This servant was put to torture and died upon the rack, after which all the accused were committed to St. Angelo and finally removed to the Corte Savella where the criminal court of justice then sat. The judge had such presumption of their guilt that, failing to extort confession, he ordered the “question” to be applied.
When subjected to the “cord” the brothers’ courage failed. This was torture by means of a rope attached to the arms and rove into a running knot with a pulley in the ceiling. When run up, the whole weight of the body was borne by the arms which were nearly drawn from their sockets. Then the squasso was tried, a sudden drop of the body, but not so far as to touch the floor. The brothers stood out at first but were told their sufferings would be increased by the addition of lead weights to their feet. Then they gave in and admitted the crime but laid the chief blame on Beatrice as the instigator. Lucrezia being aged and corpulent was not tried with the cord.
Beatrice, however, would not yield to either the persuasion or threats of the judge. She bore the torment of the “cord” with extraordinary firmness. Torture failed to extort a single word from her. The judge saw in this no obstinacy but a proof of innocence, which he duly reported to the pope. Clement VIII, believing the judge to be swayed by the prisoner’s great beauty, gave the case to another, made of sterner stuff, one Luciani, a man of cruel character. When Beatrice persisted in declaring her innocence, he ordered the torture of the vigilia to be continued with full severity for five hours.
The vigilia is a narrow stool with a high back having a seat cut into pointed diamonds. The sufferer sits crosswise and the legs are fastened together on either side without support. The body is closely attached to the back of the chair, which is also cut into angular points. The hands are bound behind the back with a cord and running knot attached to the ceiling. The process of the torture is to push the victim from side to side against the points, run the body up and drop it perpetually the whole of the time ordered. The first infliction failed of effect and it was repeated on the third day. Beatrice was almost exhausted, but she still declined to confess, and the next stage in the devilish business was that of the torture of the hair, capillorum.
In this the hair of the head is twisted into a knot and attached to a rope and pulley by which the body is raised until it hangs by the hair. At the same time the fingers are imprisoned in a mesh of thin cord which is tightened and twisted till they are out of joint. Beatrice continued to protest her innocence and the judge could only conclude that she was supported by witchcraft. The story is too painful to carry further, and I forbear to describe the taxillo, or application of a block of heated wood fastened to the soles of the bare feet. At last her brothers and stepmother were brought in to make piteous entreaty to the poor victim to yield, till she cried, “Let this martyrdom cease and I will confess anything.” She went on to declare: “That which I ought to confess; that I will confess; that to which I ought to assent, to that I will assent, and that which I ought to deny, that will I deny.” She was accordingly convicted without direct confession and she never really admitted her crime.
The pope, Clement VIII, now ordered that all four should be dragged through the streets, tied to the tails of horses, and then decapitated. But many great people interceded on their behalf, praying that they might first be heard in their defence, and the pope at last reluctantly consented to listen to their advocates, whom he roundly abused, telling them that he was surprised at their effrontery in daring to defend the unnatural crime of parricide. But one of the most eminent jurists of his time, Prospero Farinacci, whose portrait is still to be seen in the castle of St. Angelo painted on one of the doors of the great hall, expatiated so eloquently upon the cruel wrongs Francesco Cenci had inflicted upon his family that Clement was moved to pity and spent a whole night in pondering over the arguments put forward by the defence. Next day he granted a reprieve, and it appeared more than likely that he would extend a full pardon to all. But at this moment another murder, a matricide in a princely family of Rome, shocked all society, and the pope insisted that justice should take its course upon all the Cenci and that all should suffer death except the entirely innocent son, Bernardo, who was, however, condemned to witness the execution of the other three.
The sentence was carried out on the ridge of St. Angelo just in front of the castle, the convicts having spent their last hours at the Corte Savella. Only a short notice was given them; they were warned one morning at six o’clock that they were to be executed on the same day. Beatrice, on hearing her fate, burst into piteous lamentations, crying, “Is it possible, O, God! that I must die so suddenly?” Her stepmother was more resigned and strove to calm Beatrice. The priests came to confess them and administer the last sacrament, after which they were led forth to join the funeral procession, which had started from St. Angelo, traversing the city to the Cenci Palace, and, after stopping for the condemned at the Corte Savella, returning to the bridge. Giacomo was in the first cart, as he was to be the first to expiate his crime. The sentence imposed upon him included the additional torture of being torn with red hot pincers as he passed along the road to the bridge, where he was to be beaten to death. Bernardo was in the second cart and Lucrezia with Beatrice in the third. The ladies were dressed wholly in black and veiled to the girdle, to which was fastened a silken cord binding their wrists, instead of manacles.
On reaching the scaffold, Bernardo mounted it and was left there alone while the ladies entered the chapel. The poor youth, ignorant of the favour shown him, believed he was to suffer death at once, and he fainted just opposite the block. Lucrezia came out first and was beheaded while repeating a psalm. Beatrice followed and bravely walked to the scaffold reciting her prayers, “with such fervour of spirit that all who heard her shed tears of compassion.” With her lovely fair hair she looked like a sad but beautiful angel. She would have lingered at her prayers but the executioner seized her, and struck ferociously at her neck, the head falling into her own blood. Bernardo meanwhile, awakening from his deadly swoon, again fainted when he saw these horrible sights and was thought to be dead until revived by powerful remedies which were applied. Last of all Giacomo was brought out, blindfolded; his legs were tied to the scaffold and the executioner struck him a fatal blow on the temples with a loaded hammer and then cut off his head. After the ceremony Bernardo was taken back to the castle of St. Angelo and kept there for a year and a half, then exiled to Tuscany, where he died.
The foregoing narrative follows the facts as stated in the archives of the Cenci family, but some authorities question whether Beatrice was ever imprisoned and tortured in St. Angelo. The evidence however seems perfectly clear. The cells she and her mother occupied are still shown, as mentioned above, and in her will Beatrice, who left the larger part of her possessions to the Church, also bequeathed money to four soldiers of the garrison who had probably been her guards in the castle. Doubts are to-day expressed as to the authenticity of the famous portrait which is attributed to the eminent painter Guido, who, according to the story, was introduced by her lawyer Farinacci into her cell for the purpose. The personal description of Beatrice given in the Cenci documents does not tally with the picture. She is recorded to have been “small and of a fair complexion with a round face, two dimples in her cheeks and golden, curling hair, which being extremely long she used to tie up; and when afterwards she loosened it the splendid ringlets dazzled the eyes of the spectators. Her eyes were of a deep blue, pleasing and full of fire, and her face was so smiling in character that even after her death she still seemed to smile.” On the other hand in the Guido canvas the eyes are hazel, the hair is not long or curling, the face is drawn with thin and haggard cheeks and no dimples. It is in the highest degree improbable that she would have worn such a head-dress or costume at the time the portrait is said to have been taken, and even the suggested solution that it was painted from recollection is not borne out by any sort of proof. The portrait is on view to-day in the Barberini Palace in Rome, having come into the possession of that noble family from another of Colonna.
The poetic traditions that have been woven around this marvellous painting have inspired much fine writing by famous hands. Some of the most interesting passages may be transcribed here.
Again, Nathaniel Hawthorne has written:—“The picture of Beatrice Cenci is the very saddest picture ever painted or conceived; it involves an unfathomable depth of sorrow, the sense of which comes to the observer by a sort of intuition. She knows that her sorrow is so strange and immense that she ought to be solitary for ever, both for the world’s sake and her own; and this is the reason we feel such a distance between Beatrice and ourselves, even when our eyes meet hers. It is infinitely heart-breaking to meet her glance and to know that nothing can be done to help or comfort her; neither does she ask help or comfort, knowing the hopelessness of her case better than we do. She is a fallen angel—fallen and yet sinless.”
“The very saddest picture ever painted or conceived,” says Nathaniel Hawthorne. Accused of complicity in the murder of a brutal father, Beatrice Cenci endured horrible torture in St. Angelo with heroic fortitude rivalling that of strong men, and never really confessed the crime. She was beheaded in front of the Castle of St. Angelo.
Compiled From Sources In The Public Domain.
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Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915