Spooked and Inspired by Beatrice

A portrait of Beatrice Cenci attributed to Guido Reni that hans in the Palazza Barberini Gallery in Rome.

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?

Two men pass in front of the door to Giovanni's building, Palazzo Cenci on Via Beatrice Cenci, Rome. August, 2012. Photo by Trisha Thomas

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.

Harriet Hosmer's sculpture of Beatrice Cenci

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.

Plaque on Via Monserrato saying "Here, where once stood the prison of Corte Savella on September 11, 1599 Beatrice Cenci was taken to the gallows, an exemplary victim of unfair justice. Photo by Trisha Thomas

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…..

 

The town of Petrella Salto in the foothills of the Apennine mountains. It is here that Beatrice Cenci planned and carried out the murder of her father Francesco Cenci.

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.

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Post in: Italiano

Trisha Thomas
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.

27 Comments

  1. Alan
    2012/08/05

    . . you made some of it up!!! Trisha! And there was me thinking everything I see/hear/read from newshounds was the truth!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/08/05

      Hello Alan!! Let’s just say I like to tell a tale and while my day job requires sticking to the facts, my blog readers are willing to cut me a little slack for the sake of a good yarn.

      Reply
  2. Kathleen Botsford
    2012/08/05

    Wow! I love ghost stories AND everything I can get my hands on of Rome, art, the Church and papal corruption. Makes living in Chicago seem tame. Can’t wait for part two!
    p.s. Have you read “The Pope’s War” by Mathew Fox?

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/08/05

      Thank you Kathleen! I can hardly imagine life in Chicago as tame! I have not read “The Pope’s War” by Matthew Fox but I just googled it and it sounds like I must read for anyone with my job.

      Reply
  3. Gwen Thomas
    2012/08/05

    So interesting. Can’t wait for part 2!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/08/05

      I’m so glad you like it. You may have to wait a while for part II…while I fish for invitations to Palazzo Cenci and the De Felice’s countryside home!

      Reply
  4. Elizabeth Minchilli
    2012/08/05

    Your story may be a mix of fact and fiction, but having lived in Palazzo Cenci I can tell you that the ghost definitely exists. We lived there for two years, in very top floor where, supposedly, Beatrice was kept prisoner by her father. We definitely felt her presence.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/08/05

      Wow!! I can’t believe it! I should have consulted you for this post– someone else who has lived in Palazzo Cenci. Maybe you have a better idea than I do. I can’t figure out if Romans see her more as a heroine who stood up to both her father and the Pope or an innocent victim of horrible crimes.

      Reply
  5. Barbara Landi
    2012/08/05

    I never heard of this story….wish I could ask my mother! Italy is chock full of stories like this it seems…ghost stories all the better. Hell my grandmother (from Bussolengo) used to conduct seances and vowed to my mother that she would “come back” after her death.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/08/05

      Barbara, I would love to hear a ghost story about your grandmother from Bussolengo who comes back to haunt her descendents! Italy has such a long history so I suppose more time to gather up ghosts.

      Reply
  6. Cyndy
    2012/08/05

    Fascinating! I look forward to the rest of the story! Enjoy your visit!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/08/05

      Thank you Cyndy!! The rest will not come until I’ve seen the rock this fall….and I am really looking forward to that!

      Reply
  7. Joan Kiszonak (Wheeler)
    2012/08/05

    I enjoy your articles immensely! Especially the recent one with Keats and Shelley’s graves and the pyramid! I have been there and it was one of the high-lights of that particular trip. I was on my way to Sicily. Keep on writing, you have a natural gift. And, my condolences on the death of your step-dad. Hoping to see your Mom soon to give her a hug. She is a strong woman. JOAN

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/08/05

      Joan — How wonderful to hear from you. I can’t believe you actually saw the Keats and Shelley graves. Isn’t that cemetery lovely! Lucky you going to Sicily– it is such a beautiful, intriguing, fascinating place. And thanks for the compliments on my writing. I am actually rather insecure about it– I am having doubts that I will ever get my Mozzarella Mamma manuscript published.

      Thank you also for your condolences on my step-dad. He was an extraordinary man and I feel lucky to have known him. If any blog readers are interested, you can google Henry Sands Slayter and you will find his obituary which ran in several Boston papers.

      And finally, yes my Mom is strong, she’s an awesome woman and I am infinitely proud of all her accomplishments and all she has taught me as a mother.

      Reply
  8. Jon D.
    2012/08/06

    Great story Trish! But, I was there that night and what actually happened was more of a Pietro Maso thing. Francesco wanted the family to spend the weekend in the country together. Bea was sulking because she wanted to stay in Rome and go out with her friends and the internet connection sucks there so she cooked up this abuse story and convinced her stepmom to whack him. (she hated the mountains and preffered the Ansedonia beach house and was pissed off anyway because her bitchy friend told her she saw Francesco with some babes one night in Pignetto). I spent allot of weekends with him and we used to go skiing together. He was a nice guy..no one deserves to die being electrocuted by an X-box.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/08/06

      Oh my goodness!! This cracks me up. I think I like your modern day Bea version — flesh it out a bit more and I will post it. The modern day Roman Beatrice: “if I can’t get Facebook at the Castle Dad, I’m not going!!”, followed by slammed door.

      Reply
  9. Robin Davis
    2012/08/30

    I am thrilled to hear of a current ghost sighting in Italy! I always ask and many modern Italians have an practical view of the paranormal and say “ghosts are from the past, and I must go to work!”

    I love this story.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/08/31

      I am glad you like this story Robin. I think most people who live in the Cenci Palazzo in Rome are aware of Beatrice’s presence. See Elizabeth Minchilli’s comment below.

      Reply
  10. Vicki Kondelik
    2012/09/25

    I’m so glad to see this post! I’m writing a novel about Beatrice Cenci, and you’re right, it’s very difficult to sort out the facts from the legend. Even with historical documents it’s hard because there are a lot of gaps, and a 19th-century historian named Bertolotti, who was supposedly the first to write a serious study of Beatrice Cenci’s story, has a reputation for being extremely unreliable, and may even have forged some documents and destroyed others.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/09/26

      Hi Vicki — that’s wonderful you are writing a novel about Beatrice. Are you coming over to Rome for research? If you do, we must get together, I am so curious to hear about your project. I am now trying to work on a post on Artemisia Gentileschi and am readng “Artemisia” by Alexandra Lapierre which is an amazing historical novel. Lapierre did some serious research in the Vatican archives and the Italian state archives….it is all so fascinating. You must keep me updated and I will do a post on you and your book when it comes out.

      Reply
      • Vicki Kondelik
        2012/09/28

        I would love to come to Rome for research. I’ve just finished the first draft of my novel, and even though there’s a lot that’s available on the web, I’m sure there’s nothing like actually going to the sites in Rome that are associated with Beatrice, and I’d really like to have that experience before I finish the final draft. By the way, I love Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings and Lapierre’s novel. In fact, I’ve made Artemisia a minor character in my novel. She and her father witnessed Beatrice’s execution when Artemisia was only six years old. Can you imagine what that sort of thing would do to a child? Also, have you read Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia? Very different from Lapierre’s novel, but quite enjoyable, I thought.

        Reply
        • Trisha Thomas
          Trisha Thomas
          2012/09/29

          I haven’t read Susan Vreeland’s book, but I will get it an read it. And I am looking forward to reading your novel too!

          Reply
  11. Vicki Kondelik
    2013/02/12

    The prologue to my novel about Beatrice Cenci is up on my website now, if you’d like to see it:
    http://www-personal.umich.edu/~vickik/prologue.html

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2013/02/12

      Vicki — I just read it, it is wonderful. I can’t wait to read the rest. Goodluck with it and keep me posted on your progress.

      Reply
      • Vicki Kondelik
        2013/02/13

        Thank you so much! I will keep you posted.

        Reply
  12. Liz Paulding
    2014/03/10

    Hi Trisha, thanks for blogging this great story! I loved reading it even more than for its drama because many years ago I studied at an art school that rented floors in the building joined by the archway in the photo above (I think part of the Cenci family home?). Anyway we students were fascinated by Beatrice’s story and felt a strong connection to her. Really brings back memories! Thanks again!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/03/10

      Thanks Liz– I am so glad my Beatrice story was able to bring back some memories for you. What fun it must have been to study in that building. There is just so much history to Rome, wherever you scratch the surface you find some amazing, fascinating story.

      Reply

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