Beatrice Cenci: The investigators suspected foul play almost as soon as they saw the body that September morning in 1598. The wounds just didn't seem to be consistent with a thirty-foot (thirteen meters) fall from a balcony. Particularly troublesome were the three puncture wounds on the right side of Count Cenci's head -- the one near his eye was deepest. And the body was too cold. The count had been dead for hours, not the few minutes between the crash of the body down into the trash heap and the arrival of would-be rescuers.

The real evidence was in the Count's room, inside the castle -- blood soaked sheets were still on the bed. Two men were missing: one was Olimpio Calvetti, the trusted castellano (keeper) of the Count's castle (and it was later learned that he was Beatrice's lover), and the other was a hired accomplice, Marzio da Fiorani. They were quickly run to ground. Olimpio had his head neatly sliced off and delivered by an axe-wielding bounty hunter. Marzio had worse luck -- he was taken alive and died under torture in Tor di Nona prison in Rome after confessing everything.

The hit had been paid for by the Count's own family. Lucrezia, the Count's wife, her daughter Beatrice, and her oldest son Giacomo were executed on the Tiber side of Castel Sant'Angelo a year later. A younger son was sent to the galleys. The two women were quickly dispatched by the local headsman, but Giacomo's death was exquisitely grisly and prolonged. Giacomo had also talked, and it was his story that sealed all of their fates. Most importantly, Giacomo said that when the others had wavered, it was Beatrice, his teen-aged sister who kept the plot alive.

Not that anyone in town cared that Count Francesco Cenci was dead. He was roundly hated for his numerous excursions in Rome and around his country castle, which included rapes, seductions, duels and murders. Everyone also knew about his black rages and his beastly treatment of his wife and children. There were even stories about rape of Beatrice and her younger sister, although that particular crime was never proved. But sons of Cardinals, it seemed -- even bastard sons -- were immune from prosecution. Everyone agreed that Francesco needed killing.

The only problem with the defense case in the trial (and even the family's defenders agreed it was a fair trial) was that there was too much premeditation. A self-defense plea might have worked if a quick fatal blow had been struck to ward off an attack, but there was ample evidence of a long planning phase. Drugging the old man (Beatrice's work), holding him down when he roused, having ready and hidden in the room the hammer and the spike that made the head wounds, three separate blows to ensure that the work was done. It was just too much. The crowd outside the court was nonetheless sympathetic to the Count's kin, and, despite the normal enthusiasm at a public execution, even the execution-day crowd sided with the perpetrators, and especially with young Beatrice who had kept silent throughout the year long ordeal of torture and trial.  Some said she was trying to protect her mother.

Beatrice, in particular, passed into legend. It was too good a story for the Romantics to miss. In the 1740s an Italian historian had included a sympathetic telling of Beatrice's tale in a popular multi-volume set called the Annals of Italy. By the time Shelley arrived in Rome in 1819, that version had taken hold. Shelly, infatuated by the supposed Guido Reni portrait of Beatrice then in Palazzo Colonna, manipulated the story still further in his verse dramatization, The Cenci, especially by sanitizing the murder: he has Olimpio strangle the Count to avoid shedding blood. Shelly also made Beatrice's motives clear. Her only other choice was submission to incest. Stendahl, Artaud, Dumas, Swinburn, Moravia, and numerous others (even Alfred Nobel, the dynamiter and prize giver) followed the Shelley model. The poor girl (usually a very young very innocent virgin -- conveniently forgetting that she was Olimpio's mattress) was just trying to protect herself.

And into the 20th century. At least six movies were made of the Beatrice Cenci story, starting with a silent, black and white film in 1909 and ending with the bloodbath 1969 version that Lucio "The Godfather of Gore" Fulci made on location at the castle. All played Beatrice as the victim, and Fulci, pandering to Italian anti-clericalism, changed the story so that the Cardinal (who actually was dead before Beatrice was born) was the perpetrator of the incest.

A small and balanced book on the story of the Cenci (in Italian) is available at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, where the Reni "portrait of Beatrice" now usually hangs -- it was out for cleaning at the beginning of May 2000. Most art historians now believe it's someone else, but it made a good story.

Internet links:
A moderns account of the events:

Shelley's version:

Shelley, mooning over what he thought was Reni's portrait of Beatrice:

Reni's "portrait":