About a year ago, my son Nico spent the night at his friend Giovanni’s house in the center of Rome. Nico told me later that in the middle of the hot, dry Roman summer night he felt something cool and damp blow past him. He sat up, and, with the light from a street lamp outside, he could make out a beautiful, young woman near the door to the room. She had long, reddish-blond curls that fell over her shoulders, and dark eyes. Her flowing, white nightgown billowed around her slender frame and down to her bare feet. She stared at Nico with a melancholy gaze and then with her pale, thin hand beckoned him to follow. Nico sat up in a daze and watched as she faded away almost as though she were passing through the door. Nico thought he had been dreaming and rolled over and went back to sleep. Sometime later Nico awoke to a sharp scream, followed by what sounded like the moans of a young woman. He was frightened and woke his friend Giovanni. Giovanni propped himself up on his elbow, listened, and for several seconds the two of them heard another long, anguished moan. Nico suggested they call the police, Giovanni lay back down “Ah Zii, e’ sola Bea, lo fa spesso… scialla” (translated, “dude, it’s just Bea, she often does that, chill.)
Nico insisted, “Gio, Gio dai su, sta male dobbiamo aiutarla,” (translated: Joe, Joe, come on, she’s in trouble, we have to help her). At that point Gio rolled towards Nico and said, “Ziii, e’ morta piu’ di quattro secoli fa.” (translated: dude, she died 4 centuries ago).
I have always had a weakness for ghost stories, so when Nico recounted this one to me, I was immediately intrigued. Who was Bea? Where does Giovanni live?
Giovanni lives in the Palazzo Cenci, an old Roman Palazzo in the historic center on the edge of the Jewish Ghetto. It was once the home of the noble family Cenci, and the Bea in question I later learned was one of the most famous maidens and popular martyrs in the history of Rome, Beatrice Cenci.
The story of Beatrice Cenci involves everything any writer ever asked for – a beautiful, young maiden, a miscreant, rich, noble father, a step-mother, and an obdurate, authoritarian Pope.
It’s a tale of power, passion, corruption, incest and parricide. There’s enough sex and blood to go around. Over the centuries Beatrice’s story has caught the attention of some of the world’s most prominent artists and authors— Percy Bysshe Shelley, Stendhal, Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, and Alberto Moravia are just a few of the authors who have told her tale. Artist Guido Reni painted her portrait (supposedly), and Caravaggio had a front row seat at her death as did Italian painter Orazio Gentileschi, apparently with his young daughter Artemisia Gentileschi.
Beatrice’s family lived in Rome in the late 16th century and word of her beauty was as widespread as the reputation of her noble father, Count Francesco Cenci, as a violent, corrupt brute. At the time Rome was part of the Papal States and Count Cenci used his wealth and extensive lands to regularly pay off the Pope to get out of jail and pardoned for his crimes.
In that period, Pope Clement VIII was becoming increasingly worried that the noble families of Rome were encroaching on his power. He needed to reassert control, but was hesitant to take on Count Cenci.
Legend has it that Count Cenci abused all those around him, his son Giacomo, his second wife and Beatrice’s step-mother Lucrezia, but most of all he violently abused and raped his lovely, gracious daughter. Beatrice reported her father’s deeds to Vatican officials but to no avail.
Count Cenci eventually locked 18-year-old Beatrice and her step-mother up in the family Castle at San Petrella in the foothills of the Apennine mountains where the lecherous monster continued to abuse them mercilessly.
In September 1598 when the Count was at his Castle, Beatrice apparently came up with a plan to kill him. The two women conspired with two servants (one was supposedly Beatrice’s lover) to drug the count, then while he slept they drove a long nail through his head and dumped him out the castle window and into a ravine below where he was later discovered.
Beatrice, Lucretia and Giacomo were arrested and put on trial in Rome and found guilty.
On September 10, 1599, Beatrice and Lucretia were walked from the Corte Savella prison (now on Rome’s Via Monserrato) to have their heads chopped off with a meat cleaver in front of a crowd of agitated, angry Romans at the Piazza di Ponte Sant’Angelo. Beatrice – legend goes – was calm, unrepentant and achingly beautiful right up until the very end when her bloodied head rolled off the wooden platform.
Following the deaths of the Cenci family, the Pope confiscated all the family’s wealth.
After hearing about Beatrice, living in Rome, I had to make a few stops to learn more about her.
First stop the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antica in Palazzo Barberini to check out the painting that Italian Baroque artist Guido Reni painted of Beatrice Cenci while she was in prison. Palazzo Barberini is stunningly beautiful both as a builiding and because it is chock-a-block with Caravaggio’s, Raphael’s, Titian’s etc. The last time I was there it was also for my blog, to check out Raphael’s “La Fornarina” (see blog post Love and Passion in Rome ).
This time I scooted up the wide staircase that wind up the inner courtyard headed for Bea. I had to wander through the Caravaggio room before I found her small portrait on a wall in a large room shoved in a corner near another portrait.
Let me give you British Romantic Percy Bysshe Shelley’s version of his impression of the same painting. He wrote: “There is a fixed and pale composure upon the features: she seems sad and stricken down in spirit, yet the despair thus expressed is lightened by the patience of gentleness. Her head is bound with folds of white drapery from which the yellow strings of her golden hair escape and fall about her neck. The moulding of her face is exquisitely delicate; the eyebrows are distinct and arched: the lips have that permanent meaning of imagination and sensibility which suffering has not repressed and which it seems as if death could scarcely extinguish.”
When I stood in front of the painting the other day, I noticed something else. To me her eyes seemed to be looking directly at me, seeking me out and beseechiing me for help. It is the Mamma in me that wanted to tell her that everything would be alright.
But I think I actually prefer sculptor Harriet Hosmer’s version of Beatrice Cenci made in 1857.
Another stop on my Beatrice Cenci walk was on Via Monserrato. On the 500th anniversary of her death the city of Rome put up a plaque to Beatrice Cenci at the spot that she passed as she was taken from the Corte Savella prison on Via di Monserrato to the gallows along the Tiber.
Then of course I had to have a chat with Giovanni’s Mamma, Annalisa De Felice. Annalisa confirmed the Beatrice ghost legend adding, “Actually, I think Beatrice is following me.” She then invited me to visit her home in the countryside this fall. ”You’re not going to believe it,” she told me, “it is in Petrella Salto right near the the place where Count Cenci was found, when you come to visit I will take you to the rock.”
To be continued…..
Note to blog readers: This story is a mix of fact and legend and it is hard to sort out the facts without dedicating years of research on historical documents. So, I apologize for any errors. In addition, I’ve taken a little literary license to spice up the beginning.