*Alexandre Dumas, Pere*
_From Eight Volumes of "Celebrated Crimes"_
Should you ever go to Rome and visit the villa Pamphili, no doubt, after
having sought under its tall pines and along its canals the shade and
freshness so rare in the capital of the Christian world, you will
descend towards the Janiculum Hill by a charming road, in the middle of
which you will find the Pauline fountain. Having passed this monument,
and having lingered a moment on the terrace of the church of St. Peter
Montorio, which commands the whole of Rome, you will visit the cloister
of Bramante, in the middle of which, sunk a few feet below the level, is
built, on the identical place where St. Peter was crucified, a little
temple, half Greek, half Christian; you will thence ascend by a side
door into the church itself. There, the attentive cicerone will show
you, in the first chapel to the right, the Christ Scourged, by Sebastian
del Piombo, and in the third chapel to the left, an Entombment by
Fiammingo; having examined these two masterpieces at leisure, he will
take you to each end of the transverse cross, and will show you—on one
side a picture by Salviati, on slate, and on the other a work by Vasari;
then, pointing out in melancholy tones a copy of Guido’s Martyrdom of
St. Peter on the high altar, he will relate to you how for three
centuries the divine Raffaelle’s Transfiguration was worshipped in that
spot; how it was carried away by the French in 1809, and restored to the
pope by the Allies in 1814. As you have already in all probability
admired this masterpiece in the Vatican, allow him to expatiate, and
search at the foot of the altar for a mortuary slab, which you will
identify by a cross and the single word; Orate; under this gravestone is
buried Beatrice Cenci, whose tragical story cannot but impress you
She was the daughter of Francesco Cenci. Whether or not it be true that
men are born in harmony with their epoch, and that some embody its good
qualities and others its bad ones, it may nevertheless interest our
readers to cast a rapid glance over the period which had just passed
when the events which we are about to relate took place. Francesco Cenci
will then appear to them as the diabolical incarnation of his time.
On the 11th of August, 1492, after the lingering death-agony of Innocent
VIII, during which two hundred and twenty murders were committed in the
streets of Rome, Alexander VI ascended the pontifical throne. Son of a
sister of Pope Calixtus III, Roderigo Lenzuoli Borgia, before being
created cardinal, had five children by Rosa Vanozza, whom he afterwards
caused to be married to a rich Roman. These children were:
Francis, Duke of Gandia;
Caesar, bishop and cardinal, afterwards Duke of Valentinois;
Lucrezia, who was married four times: her first husband was Giovanni
Sforza, lord of Pesaro, whom she left owing to his impotence; the
second, Alfonso, Duke of Bisiglia, whom her brother Caesar caused to be
assassinated; the third, Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, from whom a
second divorce separated her; finally, the fourth, Alfonso of Aragon,
who was stabbed to death on the steps of the basilica of St. Peter, and
afterwards, three weeks later, strangled, because he did not die soon
enough from his wounds, which nevertheless were mortal;
Giofre, Count of Squillace, of whom little is known;
And, finally, a youngest son, of whom nothing at all is known.
The most famous of these three brothers was Caesar Borgia. He had made
every arrangement a plotter could make to be King of Italy at the death
of his father the pope, and his measures were so carefully taken as to
leave no doubt in his own mind as to the success of this vast project.
Every chance was provided against, except one; but Satan himself could
hardly have foreseen this particular one. The reader will judge for
The pope had invited Cardinal Adrien to supper in his vineyard on the
Belvidere; Cardinal Adrien was very rich, and the pope wished to inherit
his wealth, as he already had acquired that of the Cardinals of Sant’
Angelo, Capua, and Modena. To effect this, Caesar Borgia sent two
bottles of poisoned wine to his father’s cup-bearer, without taking him
into his confidence; he only instructed him not to serve this wine till
he himself gave orders to do so; unfortunately, during supper the
cup-bearer left his post for a moment, and in this interval a careless
butler served the poisoned wine to the pope, to Caesar Borgia, and to
Alexander VI died some hours afterwards; Caesar Borgia was confined to
bed, and sloughed off his skin; while Cardinal Corneto lost his sight
and his senses, and was brought to death’s door.
Pius III succeeded Alexander VI, and reigned twenty-five days; on the
twenty-sixth he was poisoned also.
Caesar Borgia had under his control eighteen Spanish cardinals who owed
to him their places in the Sacred College; these cardinals were entirely
his creatures, and he could command them absolutely. As he was in a
moribund condition and could make no use of them for himself, he sold
them to Giuliano della Rovere, and Giuliano della Rovere was elected
pope, under the name of Julius II. To the Rome of Nero succeeded the
Athens of Pericles.
Leo X succeeded Julius II, and under his pontificate Christianity
assumed a pagan character, which, passing from art into manners, gives
to this epoch a strange complexion. Crimes for the moment disappeared,
to give place to vices; but to charming vices, vices in good taste, such
as those indulged in by Alcibiades and sung by Catullus. Leo X died
after having assembled under his reign, which lasted eight years, eight
months, and nineteen days, Michael Angelo, Raffaelle, Leonardo da Vinci,
Correggio, Titian, Andrea del Sarto, Fra Bartolommeo, Giulio Romano,
Ariosto, Guicciardini, and Macchiavelli.
Giulio di Medici and Pompeo Colonna had equal claims to succeed him. As
both were skilful politicians, experienced courtiers, and moreover of
real and almost equal merit, neither of them could obtain a majority,
and the Conclave was prolonged almost indefinitely, to the great fatigue
of the cardinals. So it happened one day that a cardinal, more tired
than the rest, proposed to elect, instead of either Medici or Colonna,
the son, some say of a weaver, others of a brewer of Utrecht, of whom no
one had ever thought till then, and who was for the moment acting head
of affairs in Spain, in the absence of Charles the Fifth. The jest
prospered in the ears of those who heard it; all the cardinals approved
their colleague’s proposal, and Adrien became pope by a mere accident.
He was a perfect specimen of the Flemish type a regular Dutchman, and
could not speak a word of Italian. When he arrived in Rome, and saw the
Greek masterpieces of sculpture collected at vast cost by Leo X, he
wished to break them to pieces, exclaiming, "Suet idola anticorum." His
first act was to despatch a papal nuncio, Francesco Cherigato, to the
Diet of Nuremberg, convened to discuss the reforms of Luther, with
instructions which give a vivid notion of the manners of the time.
"Candidly confess," said he, "that God has permitted this schism and
this persecution on account of the sins of man, and especially those of
priests and prelates of the Church; for we know that many abominable
things have taken place in the Holy See."
Adrien wished to bring the Romans back to the simple and austere manners
of the early Church, and with this object pushed reform to the minutest
details. For instance, of the hundred grooms maintained by Leo X, he
retained only a dozen, in order, he said, to have two more than the
A pope like this could not reign long: he died after a year’s
pontificate. The morning after his death his physician’s door was found
decorated with garlands of flowers, bearing this inscription: "To the
liberator of his country."
Giulio di Medici and Pompeo Colonna were again rival candidates.
Intrigues recommenced, and the Conclave was once more so divided that at
one time the cardinals thought they could only escape the difficulty in
which they were placed by doing what they had done before, and electing
a third competitor; they were even talking about Cardinal Orsini, when
Giulio di Medici, one of the rival candidates, hit upon a very ingenious
expedient. He wanted only five votes; five of his partisans each offered
to bet five of Colonna’s a hundred thousand ducats to ten thousand
against the election of Giulio di Medici. At the very first ballot after
the wager, Giulio di Medici got the five votes he wanted; no objection
could be made, the cardinals had not been bribed; they had made a bet,
that was all.
Thus it happened, on the 18th of November, 1523, Giulio di Medici was
proclaimed pope under the name of Clement VII. The same day, he
generously paid the five hundred thousand ducats which his five
partisans had lost.
It was under this pontificate, and during the seven months in which
Rome, conquered by the Lutheran soldiers of the Constable of Bourbon,
saw holy things subjected to the most frightful profanations, that
Francesco Cenci was born.
He was the son of Monsignor Nicolo Cenci, afterwards apostolic treasurer
during the pontificate of Pius V. Under this venerable prelate, who
occupied himself much more with the spiritual than the temporal
administration of his kingdom, Nicolo Cenci took advantage of his
spiritual head’s abstraction of worldly matters to amass a net revenue
of a hundred and sixty thousand piastres, about f32,000 of our money.
Francesco Cenci, who was his only son, inherited this fortune.
His youth was spent under popes so occupied with the schism of Luther
that they had no time to think of anything else. The result was, that
Francesco Cenci, inheriting vicious instincts and master of an immense
fortune which enabled him to purchase immunity, abandoned himself to all
the evil passions of his fiery and passionate temperament. Five times
during his profligate career imprisoned for abominable crimes, he only
succeeded in procuring his liberation by the payment of two hundred
thousand piastres, or about one million francs. It should be explained
that popes at this time were in great need of money.
The lawless profligacy of Francesco Cenci first began seriously to
attract public attention under the pontificate of Gregory XIII. This
reign offered marvellous facilities for the development of a reputation
such as that which this reckless Italian Don Juan seemed bent on
acquiring. Under the Bolognese Buoncampagno, a free hand was given to
those able to pay both assassins and judges. Rape and murder were so
common that public justice scarcely troubled itself with these trifling
things, if nobody appeared to prosecute the guilty parties. The good
Gregory had his reward for his easygoing indulgence; he was spared to
rejoice over the Massacre of St. Bartholomew.
Francesco Cenci was at the time of which we are speaking a man of
forty-four or forty-five years of age, about five feet four inches in
height, symmetrically proportioned, and very strong, although rather
thin; his hair was streaked with grey, his eyes were large and
expressive, although the upper eyelids drooped somewhat; his nose was
long, his lips were thin, and wore habitually a pleasant smile, except
when his eye perceived an enemy; at this moment his features assumed a
terrible expression; on such occasions, and whenever moved or even
slightly irritated, he was seized with a fit of nervous trembling, which
lasted long after the cause which provoked it had passed. An adept in
all manly exercises and especially in horsemanship, he sometimes used to
ride without stopping from Rome to Naples, a distance of forty-one
leagues, passing through the forest of San Germano and the Pontine
marshes heedless of brigands, although he might be alone and unarmed
save for his sword and dagger. When his horse fell from fatigue, he
bought another; were the owner unwilling to sell he took it by force; if
resistance were made, he struck, and always with the point, never the
hilt. In most cases, being well known throughout the Papal States as a
free-handed person, nobody tried to thwart him; some yielding through
fear, others from motives of interest. Impious, sacrilegious, and
atheistical, he never entered a church except to profane its sanctity.
It was said of him that he had a morbid appetite for novelties in crime,
and that there was no outrage he would not commit if he hoped by so
doing to enjoy a new sensation.
At the age of about forty-five he had married a very rich woman, whose
name is not mentioned by any chronicler. She died, leaving him seven
children—five boys and two girls. He then married Lucrezia Petroni, a
perfect beauty of the Roman type, except for the ivory pallor of her
complexion. By this second marriage he had no children.
As if Francesco Cenci were void of all natural affection, he hated his
children, and was at no pains to conceal his feelings towards them: on
one occasion, when he was building, in the courtyard of his magnificent
palace, near the Tiber, a chapel dedicated to St. Thomas, he remarked to
the architect, when instructing him to design a family vault, "That is
where I hope to bury them all." The architect often subsequently
admitted that he was so terrified by the fiendish laugh which
accompanied these words, that had not Francesco Cenci’s work been
extremely profitable, he would have refused to go on with it.
As soon as his three eldest boys, Giacomo, Cristoforo, and Rocco, were
out of their tutors’ hands, in order to get rid of them he sent them to
the University of Salamanca, where, out of sight, they were out of mind,
for he thought no more about them, and did not even send them the means
of subsistence. In these straits, after struggling for some months
against their wretched plight, the lads were obliged to leave Salamanca,
and beg their way home, tramping barefoot through France and Italy, till
they made their way back to Rome, where they found their father harsher
and more unkind than ever.
This happened in the early part of the reign of Clement VIII, famed for
his justice. The three youths resolved to apply to him, to grant them an
allowance out of their father’s immense income. They consequently
repaired to Frascati, where the pope was building the beautiful
Aldobrandini Villa, and stated their case. The pope admitted the justice
of their claims, and ordered Francesco, to allow each of them two
thousand crowns a year. He endeavoured by every possible means to evade
this decree, but the pope’s orders were too stringent to be disobeyed.
About this period he was for the third time imprisoned for infamous
crimes. His three sons them again petitioned the pope, alleging that
their father dishonoured the family name, and praying that the extreme
rigour of the law, a capital sentence, should be enforced in his case.
The pope pronounced this conduct unnatural and odious, and drove them
with ignominy from his presence. As for Francesco, he escaped, as on the
two previous occasions, by the payment of a large sum of money.
It will be readily understood that his sons’ conduct on this occasion
did not improve their father’s disposition towards them, but as their
independent pensions enabled them to keep out of his way, his rage fell
with all the greater intensity on his two unhappy daughters. Their
situation soon became so intolerable, that the elder, contriving to
elude the close supervision under which she was kept, forwarded to the
pope a petition, relating the cruel treatment to which she was
subjected, and praying His Holiness either to give her in marriage or
place her in a convent. Clement VIII took pity on her; compelled
Francesco Cenci to give her a dowry of sixty thousand crowns, and
married her to Carlo Gabrielli, of a noble family of Gubbio. Francesco
driven nearly frantic with rage when he saw this victim released from
About the same time death relieved him from two other encumbrances: his
sons Rocco and Cristoforo were killed within a year of each other; the
latter by a bungling medical practitioner whose name is unknown; the
former by Paolo Corso di Massa, in the streets of Rome. This came as a
relief to Francesco, whose avarice pursued his sons even after their
death, far he intimated to the priest that he would not spend a farthing
on funeral services. They were accordingly borne to the paupers’ graves
which he had caused to be prepared for them, and when he saw them both
interred, he cried out that he was well rid of such good-for-nothing
children, but that he should be perfectly happy only when the remaining
five were buried with the first two, and that when he had got rid of the
last he himself would burn down his palace as a bonfire to celebrate the
But Francesco took every precaution against his second daughter,
Beatrice Cenci, following the example of her elder sister. She was then
a child of twelve or thirteen years of age, beautiful and innocent as an
angel. Her long fair hair, a beauty seen so rarely in Italy, that
Raffaelle, believing it divine, has appropriated it to all his Madonnas,
curtained a lovely forehead, and fell in flowing locks over her
shoulders. Her azure eyes bore a heavenly expression; she was of middle
height, exquisitely proportioned; and during the rare moments when a
gleam of happiness allowed her natural character to display itself, she
was lively, joyous, and sympathetic, but at the same time evinced a firm
and decided disposition.
To make sure of her custody, Francesco kept her shut up in a remote
apartment of his palace, the key of which he kept in his own possession.
There, her unnatural and inflexible gaoler daily brought her some food.
Up to the age of thirteen, which she had now reached, he had behaved to
her with the most extreme harshness and severity; but now, to poor
Beatrice’s great astonishment, he all at once became gentle and even
tender. Beatrice was a child no longer; her beauty expanded like a
flower; and Francesco, a stranger to no crime, however heinous, had
marked her for his own.
Brought up as she had been, uneducated, deprived of all society, even
that of her stepmother, Beatrice knew not good from evil: her ruin was
comparatively easy to compass; yet Francesco, to accomplish his
diabolical purpose, employed all the means at his command. Every night
she was awakened by a concert of music which seemed to come from
Paradise. When she mentioned this to her father, he left her in this
belief, adding that if she proved gentle and obedient she would be
rewarded by heavenly sights, as well as heavenly sounds.
One night it came to pass that as the young girl was reposing, her head
supported on her elbow, and listening to a delightful harmony, the
chamber door suddenly opened, and from the darkness of her own room she
beheld a suite of apartments brilliantly illuminated, and sensuous with
perfumes; beautiful youths and girls, half clad, such as she had seen in
the pictures of Guido and Raffaelle, moved to and fro in these
apartments, seeming full of joy and happiness: these were the ministers
to the pleasures of Francesco, who, rich as a king, every night revelled
in the orgies of Alexander, the wedding revels of Lucrezia, and the
excesses of Tiberius at Capri. After an hour, the door closed, and the
seductive vision vanished, leaving Beatrice full of trouble and
The night following, the same apparition again presented itself, only,
on this occasion, Francesco Cenci, undressed, entered his daughter’s
roam and invited her to join the fete. Hardly knowing what she did,
Beatrice yet perceived the impropriety of yielding to her father’s
wishes: she replied that, not seeing her stepmother, Lucrezia Petroni,
among all these women, she dared not leave her bed to mix with persons
who were unknown to her. Francesco threatened and prayed, but threats
and prayers were of no avail. Beatrice wrapped herself up in the
bedclothes, and obstinately refused to obey.
The next night she threw herself on her bed without undressing. At the
accustomed hour the door opened, and the nocturnal spectacle reappeared.
This time, Lucrezia Petroni was among the women who passed before
Beatrice’s door; violence had compelled her to undergo this humiliation.
Beatrice was too far off to see her blushes and her tears. Francesco
pointed out her stepmother, whom she had lacked for in vain the previous
evening; and as she could no longer make any opposition, he led her,
covered with blushes and confusion, into the middle of this orgy.
Beatrice there saw incredible and infamous things....
Nevertheless, she resisted a long time: an inward voice told her that
this was horrible; but Francesco had the slaw persistence of a demon. To
these sights, calculated to stimulate her passions, he added heresies
designed to warp her mind; he told her that the greatest saints
venerated by the Church were the issue of fathers and daughters, and in
the end Beatrice committed a crime without even knowing it to be a sin.
His brutality then knew no bounds. He forced Lucrezia and Beatrice to
share the same bed, threatening his wife to kill her if she disclosed to
his daughter by a single word that there was anything odious in such an
intercourse. So matters went on for about three years.
At this time Francesco was obliged to make a journey, and leave the
women alone and free. The first thing Lucrezia did was to enlighten
Beatrice an the infamy of the life they were leading; they then together
prepared a memorial to the pope, in which they laid before him a
statement of all the blows and outrages they had suffered. But, before
leaving, Francesco Cenci had taken precautions; every person about the
pope was in his pay, or hoped to be. The petition never reached His
Holiness, and the two poor women, remembering that Clement VIII had on a
farmer occasion driven Giacomo, Cristaforo, and Rocco from his presence,
thought they were included in the same proscription, and looked upon
themselves as abandoned to their fate.
When matters were in this state, Giacomo, taking advantage of his
father’s absence, came to pay them a visit with a friend of his, an abbe
named Guerra: he was a young man of twenty-five or twenty-six, belonging
to one of the most noble families in Rome, of a bold, resolute, and
courageous character, and idolised by all the Roman ladies for his
beauty. To classical features he added blue eyes swimming in poetic
sentiment; his hair was long and fair, with chestnut beard and eyebrows;
add to these attractions a highly educated mind, natural eloquence
expressed by a musical and penetrating voice, and the reader may form
some idea of Monsignor the Abbe Guerra.
No sooner had he seen Beatrice than he fell in love with her. On her
side, she was not slow to return the sympathy of the young priest. The
Council of Trent had not been held at that time, consequently
ecclesiastics were not precluded from marriage. It was therefore decided
that on the return of Francesco the Abbe Guerra should demand the hand
of Beatrice from her father, and the women, happy in the absence of
their master, continued to live on, hoping for better things to come.
After three or four months, during which no one knew where he was,
Francesco returned. The very first night, he wished to resume his
intercourse with Beatrice; but she was no longer the same person, the
timid and submissive child had become a girl of decided will; strong in
her love for the abbe, she resisted alike prayers, threats, and blows.
The wrath of Francesco fell upon his wife, whom he accused of betraying
him; he gave her a violent thrashing. Lucrezia Petroni was a veritable
Roman she-wolf, passionate alike in love and vengeance; she endured all,
but pardoned nothing.
Some days after this, the Abbe Guerra arrived at the Cenci palace to
carry out what had been arranged. Rich, young, noble, and handsome,
everything would seem to promise him success; yet he was rudely
dismissed by Francesco. The first refusal did not daunt him; he returned
to the charge a second time and yet a third, insisting upon the
suitableness of such a union. At length Francesco, losing patience, told
this obstinate lover that a reason existed why Beatrice could be neither
his wife nor any other man’s. Guerra demanded what this reason was.
"Because she is my mistress."
Monsignor Guerra turned pale at this answer, although at first he did
not believe a word of it; but when he saw the smile with which Francesco
Cenci accompanied his words, he was compelled to believe that, terrible
though it was, the truth had been spoken.
For three days he sought an interview with Beatrice in vain; at length
he succeeded in finding her. His last hope was her denial of this
horrible story: Beatrice confessed all. Henceforth there was no human
hope for the two lovers; an impassable gulf separated them. They parted
bathed in tears, promising to love one another always.
Up to that time the two women had not formed any criminal resolution,
and possibly the tragical incident might never have happened, had not
Frances one night returned into his daughter’s room and violently forced
her into the commission of fresh crime.
Henceforth the doom of Francesco was irrevocably pronounced.
As we have said, the mind of Beatrice was susceptible to the best and
the worst influences: it could attain excellence, and descend to guilt.
She went and told her mother of the fresh outrage she had undergone;
this roused in the heart of the other woman the sting of her own wrongs;
and, stimulating each other’s desire for revenge, they, decided upon the
murder of Francesco.
Guerra was called in to this council of death. His heart was a prey to
hatred and revenge. He undertook to communicate with Giacomo Cenci,
without whose concurrence the women would not act, as he was the head of
the family, when his father was left out of account.
Giacomo entered readily into the conspiracy. It will be remembered what
he had formerly suffered from his father; since that time he had
married, and the close-fisted old man had left him, with his wife and
children, to languish in poverty. Guerra’s house was selected to meet in
and concert matters.
Giacomo hired a sbirro named Marzio, and Guerra a second named Olympio.
Both these men had private reasons for committing the crime—one being
actuated by love, the other by hatred. Marzio, who was in the service of
Giacomo, had often seen Beatrice, and loved her, but with that silent
and hopeless love which devours the soul. When he conceived that the
proposed crime would draw him nearer to Beatrice, he accepted his part
in it without any demur.
As for Olympio, he hated Francesco, because the latter had caused him to
lose the post of castellan of Rocco Petrella, a fortified stronghold in
the kingdom of Naples, belonging to Prince Colonna. Almost every year
Francesco Cenci spent some months at Rocco Petrella with his family; for
Prince Colonna, a noble and magnificent but needy prince, had much
esteem for Francesco, whose purse he found extremely useful. It had so
happened that Francesco, being dissatisfied with Olympio, complained
about him to Prince Colonna, and he was dismissed.
After several consultations between the Cenci family, the abbe and the
sbirri, the following plan of action was decided upon.
The period when Francesco Cenci was accustomed to go to Rocco Petrella
was approaching: it was arranged that Olympio, conversant with the
district and its inhabitants, should collect a party of a dozen
Neapolitan bandits, and conceal them in a forest through which the
travellers would have to pass. Upon a given signal, the whole family
were to be seized and carried off. A heavy ransom was to be demanded,
and the sons were to be sent back to Rome to raise the sum; but, under
pretext of inability to do so, they were to allow the time fixed by the
bandits to lapse, when Francesco was to be put to death. Thus all
suspicions of a plot would be avoided, and the real assassins would
This well-devised scheme was nevertheless unsuccessful. When Francesco
left Rome, the scout sent in advance by the conspirators could not find
the bandits; the latter, not being warned beforehand, failed to come
down before the passage of the travellers, who arrived safe and sound at
Rocco Petreila. The bandits, after having patrolled the road in vain,
came to the conclusion that their prey had escaped, and, unwilling to
stay any longer in a place where they had already spent a week, went off
in quest of better luck elsewhere.
Francesco had in the meantime settled down in the fortress, and, to be
more free to tyrannise over Lucrezia and Beatrice, sent back to Rome
Giacomo and his two other sons. He then recommenced his infamous
attempts upon Beatrice, and with such persistence, that she resolved
herself to accomplish the deed which at first she desired to entrust to
Olympio and Marzio, who had nothing to fear from justice, remained
lurking about the castle; one day Beatrice saw them from a window, and
made signs that she had something to communicate to them. The same night
Olympio, who having been castellan knew all the approaches to the
fortress, made his way there with his companion. Beatrice awaited them
at a window which looked on to a secluded courtyard; she gave them
letters which she had written to her brother and to Monsignor Guerra.
The former was to approve, as he had done before, the murder of their
father; for she would do nothing without his sanction. As for Monsignor
Guerra, he was to pay Olympio a thousand piastres, half the stipulated
sum; Marzio acting out of pure love for Beatrice, whom he worshipped as
a Madonna; which observing, the girl gave him a handsome scarlet mantle,
trimmed with gold lace, telling him to wear it for love of her. As for
the remaining moiety, it was to be paid when the death of the old man
had placed his wife and daughter in possession of his fortune.
The two sbirri departed, and the imprisoned conspirators anxiously
awaited their return. On the day fixed, they were seen again. Monsignor
Guerra had paid the thousand piastres, and Giacomo had given his
consent. Nothing now stood in the way of the execution of this terrible
deed, which was fixed for the 8th of September, the day of the Nativity
of the Virgin; but Signora Lucrezia, a very devout person, having
noticed this circumstance, would not be a party to the committal of a
double sin; the matter was therefore deferred till the next day, the
That evening, the 9th of September, 1598, the two women, supping with
the old man, mixed some narcotic with his wine so adroitly that,
suspicious though he was, he never detected it, and having swallowed the
potion, soon fell into a deep sleep.
The evening previous, Marzio and Olympio had been admitted into the
castle, where they had lain concealed all night and all day; for, as
will be remembered, the assassination would have been effected the day
before had it not been for the religious scruples of Signora Lucrezia
Petroni. Towards midnight, Beatrice fetched them out of their
hiding-place, and took them to her father’s chamber, the door of which
she herself opened. The assassins entered, and the two women awaited the
issue in the room adjoining.
After a moment, seeing the sbirri reappear pale and nerveless, shaking
their heads without speaking, they at once inferred that nothing had
"What is the matter?" cried Beatrice; "and what hinders you?"
"It is a cowardly act," replied the assassins, "to kill a poor old man
in his sleep. At the thought of his age, we were struck with pity."
Then Beatrice disdainfully raised her head, and in a deep firm voice
thus reproached them.
"Is it possible that you, who pretend to be brave and strong, have not
courage enough to kill a sleeping old man? How would it be if he were
awake? And thus you steal our money! Very well: since your cowardice
compels me to do so, I will kill my father myself; but you will not long
Hearing these words, the sbirri felt ashamed of their irresolution, and,
indicating by signs that they would fulfil their compact, they entered
the room, accompanied by the two women. As they had said, a ray of
moonlight shone through the open window, and brought into prominence the
tranquil face of the old man, the sight of whose white hair had so
This time they showed no mercy. One of them carried two great nails,
such as those portrayed in pictures of the Crucifixion; the other bore a
mallet: the first placed a nail upright over one of the old man’s eyes;
the other struck it with the hammer, and drove it into his head. The
throat was pierced in the same way with the second nail; and thus the
guilty soul, stained throughout its career with crimes of violence, was
in its turn violently torn from the body, which lay writhing on the
floor where it had rolled.
The young girl then, faithful to her word, handed the sbirri a large
purse containing the rest of the sum agreed upon, and they left. When
they found themselves alone, the women drew the nails out of the wounds,
wrapped the corpse in a sheet, and dragged it through the rooms towards
a small rampart, intending to throw it down into a garden which had been
allowed to run to waste. They hoped that the old man’s death would be
attributed to his having accidentally fallen off the terrace on his way
in the dark to a closet at the end of the gallery. But their strength
failed them when they reached the door of the last room, and, while
resting there, Lucrezia perceived the two sbirri, sharing the money
before making their escape. At her call they came to her, carried the
corpse to the rampart, and, from a spot pointed out by the women, where
the terrace was unfenced by any parapet, they threw it into an elder
tree below, whose branches retained’ it suspended.
When the body was found the following morning hanging in the branches of
the elder tree, everybody supposed, as Beatrice and her stepmother had
foreseen, that Francesco, stepping over the edge of the 386 terrace in
the dark, had thus met his end. The body was so scratched and disfigured
that no one noticed the wounds made by the two nails. The ladies, as
soon as the news was imparted to them, came out from their rooms,
weeping and lamenting in so natural a manner as to disarm any
suspicions. The only person who formed any was the laundress to whom
Beatrice entrusted the sheet in which her father’s body had been
wrapped, accounting for its bloody condition by a lame explanation,
which the laundress accepted without question, or pretended to do so;
and immediately after the funeral, the mourners returned to Rome, hoping
at length to enjoy quietude and peace. For some time, indeed, they did
enjoy tranquillity, perhaps poisoned by remorse, but ere long
retribution pursued them. The court of Naples, hearing of the sudden and
unexpected death of Francesco Cenci, and conceiving some suspicions of
violence, despatched a royal commissioner to Petrella to exhume the body
and make minute inquiries, if there appeared to be adequate grounds for
doing so. On his arrival all the domestics in the castle were placed
under arrest and sent in chains to Naples. No incriminating proofs,
however, were found, except in the evidence of the laundress, who
deposed that Beatrice had given her a bloodstained sheet to wash. This,
clue led to terrible consequences; for, further questioned she declared
that she could not believe the explanation given to account for its
condition. The evidence was sent to the Roman court; but at that period
it did not appear strong enough to warrant the arrest of the Cenci
family, who remained undisturbed for many months, during which time the
youngest boy died. Of the five brothers there only remained Giacomo, the
eldest, and Bernardo, the youngest but one. Nothing prevented them from
escaping to Venice or Florence; but they remained quietly in Rome.
Meantime Monsignor Guerra received private information that, shortly
before the death of Francesco, Marzio and Olympio had been seen prowling
round the castle, and that the Neapolitan police had received orders to
The monsignor was a most wary man, and very difficult to catch napping
when warned in time. He immediately hired two other sbirri to
assassinate Marzio and Olympio. The one commissioned to put Olympio out
of the way came across him at Terni, and conscientiously did his work
with a poniard, but Marzio’s man unfortunately arrived at Naples too
late, and found his bird already in the hands of the police.
He was put to the torture, and confessed everything. His deposition was
sent to Rome, whither he shortly afterwards followed it, to be
confronted with the accused. Warrants were immediately issued for the
arrest of Giacomo, Bernardo, Lucrezia, and Beatrice; they were at first
confined in the Cenci palace under a strong guard, but the proofs
against them becoming stronger and stronger, they were removed to the
castle of Corte Savella, where they were confronted with Marzio; but
they obstinately denied both any complicity in the crime and any
knowledge of the assassin. Beatrice, above all, displayed the greatest
assurance, demanding to be the first to be confronted with Marzio; whose
mendacity she affirmed with such calm dignity, that he, more than ever
smitten by her beauty, determined, since he could not live for her, to
save her by his death. Consequently, he declared all his statements to
be false, and asked forgiveness from God and from Beatrice; neither
threats nor tortures could make him recant, and he died firm in his
denial, under frightful tortures. The Cenci then thought themselves
God’s justice, however, still pursued them. The sbirro who had killed
Olympio happened to be arrested for another crime, and, making a clean
breast, confessed that he had been employed by Monsignor Guerra—to put
out of the way a fellow-assassin named Olympio, who knew too many of the
Luckily for himself, Monsignor Guerra heard of this opportunely. A man
of infinite resource, he lost not a moment in timid or irresolute plans,
but as it happened that at the very moment when he was warned, the
charcoal dealer who supplied his house with fuel was at hand, he sent
for him, purchased his silence with a handsome bribe, and then, buying
for almost their weight in gold the dirty old clothes which he wore, he
assumed these, cut off all his beautiful cherished fair hair, stained
his beard, smudged his face, bought two asses, laden with charcoal, and
limped up and down the streets of Rome, crying, "Charcoal! charcoal!"
Then, whilst all the detectives were hunting high and low for him, he
got out of the city, met a company of merchants under escort, joined
them, and reached Naples, where he embarked. What ultimately became of
him was never known; it has been asserted, but without confirmation,
that he succeeded—in reaching France, and enlisted in a Swiss regiment
in the pay of Henry IV.
The confession of the sbirro and the disappearance of Monsignor Guerra
left no moral doubt of the guilt of the Cenci. They were consequently
sent from the castle to the prison; the two brothers, when put to the
torture, broke down and confessed their guilt. Lucrezia Petroni’s full
habit of body rendered her unable to bear the torture of the rope, and,
on being suspended in the air, begged to be lowered, when she confessed
all she knew.
As for Beatrice, she continued unmoved; neither promises, threats, nor
torture had any effect upon her; she bore everything unflinchingly, and
the judge Ulysses Moscati himself, famous though he was in such matters,
failed to draw from her a single incriminating word. Unwilling to take
any further responsibility, he referred the case to Clement VIII; and
the pope, conjecturing that the judge had been too lenient in applying
the torture to, a young and beautiful Roman lady, took it out of his
hands and entrusted it to another judge, whose severity and
insensibility to emotion were undisputed.
This latter reopened the whole interrogatory, and as Beatrice up to that
time had only been subjected to the ordinary torture, he gave
instructions to apply both the ordinary and extraordinary. This was the
rope and pulley, one of the most terrible inventions ever devised by the
most ingenious of tormentors.
To make the nature of this horrid torture plain to our readers, we give
a detailed description of it, adding an extract of the presiding judge’s
report of the case, taken from the Vatican manuscripts.
Of the various forms of torture then used in Rome the most common were
the whistle, the fire, the sleepless, and the rope.
The mildest, the torture of the whistle, was used only in the case of
children and old persons; it consisted in thrusting between the nails
and the flesh reeds cut in the shape of whistles.
The fire, frequently employed before the invention of the sleepless
torture, was simply roasting the soles of the feet before a hot fire.
The sleepless torture, invented by Marsilius, was worked by forcing the
accused into an angular frame of wood about five feet high, the sufferer
being stripped and his arms tied behind his back to the frame; two men,
relieved every five hours, sat beside him, and roused him the moment he
closed his eyes. Marsilius says he has never found a man proof against
this torture; but here he claims more than he is justly entitled to.
Farinacci states that, out of one hundred accused persons subjected to
it, five only refused to confess—a very satisfactory result for the
Lastly comes the torture of the rope and pulley, the most in vogue of
all, and known in other Latin countries as the strappado.
It was divided into three degrees of intensity—the slight, the severe,
and the very severe.
The first, or slight torture, which consisted mainly in the
apprehensions it caused, comprised the threat of severe torture,
introduction into the torture chamber, stripping, and the tying of the
rope in readiness for its appliance. To increase the terror these
preliminaries excited, a pang of physical pain was added by tightening a
cord round the wrists. This often sufficed to extract a confession from
women or men of highly strung nerves.
The second degree, or severe torture, consisted in fastening the
sufferer, stripped naked, and his hands tied behind his back, by the
wrists to one end of a rope passed round a pulley bolted into the
vaulted ceiling, the other end being attached to a windlass, by turning
which he could be hoisted, into the air, and dropped again, either
slowly or with a jerk, as ordered by the judge. The suspension generally
lasted during the recital of a Pater Noster, an Ave Maria, or a
Miserere; if the accused persisted in his denial, it was doubled. This
second degree, the last of the ordinary torture, was put in practice
when the crime appeared reasonably probable but was not absolutely
The third, or very severe, the first of the extraordinary forms of
torture, was so called when the sufferer, having hung suspended by the
wrists, for sometimes a whole hour, was swung about by the executioner,
either like the pendulum of a clock, or by elevating him with the
windlass and dropping him to within a foot or two of the ground. If he
stood this torture, a thing almost unheard of, seeing that it cut the
flesh of the wrist to the bone and dislocated the limbs, weights were
attached to the feet, thus doubling the torture. This last form of
torture was only applied when an atrocious crime had been proved to have
been committed upon a sacred person, such as a priest, a cardinal, a
prince, or an eminent and learned man.
Having seen that Beatrice was sentenced to the torture ordinary and
extraordinary, and having explained the nature of these tortures, we
proceed to quote the official report:—
"And as in reply to every question she would confess nothing, we caused
her to be taken by two officers and led from the prison to the torture
chamber, where the torturer was in attendance; there, after cutting off
her hair, he made her sit on a small stool, undressed her, pulled off
her shoes, tied her hands behind her back, fastened them to a rope
passed over a pulley bolted into the ceiling of the aforesaid chamber,
and wound up at the other end by a four lever windlass, worked by two
"Before hoisting her from the ground we again interrogated her touching
the aforesaid parricide; but notwithstanding the confessions of her
brother and her stepmother, which were again produced, bearing their
signatures, she persisted in denying everything, saying, ’Haul me about
and do what you like with me; I have spoken the truth, and will tell you
nothing else, even if I were torn to pieces.’
"Upon this we had her hoisted in the air by the wrists to the height of
about two feet from the ground, while we recited a Pater Noster; and
then again questioned her as to the facts and circumstances of the
aforesaid parricide; but she would make no further answer, only saying,
’You are killing me! You are killing me!’
"We then raised her to the elevation of four feet, and began an Ave
Maria. But before our prayer was half finished she fainted away; or
pretended to do so.
"We caused a bucketful of water to be thrown over her head; feeling its
coolness, she recovered consciousness, and cried, ’My God! I am dead!
You are killing me! My God!’ But this was all she would say.
"We then raised her higher still, and recited a Miserere, during which,
instead of joining in the prayer, she shook convulsively and cried
several times, ’My God! My God!’
"Again questioned as to the aforesaid parricide, she would confess
nothing, saying only that she was innocent, and then again fainted away.
"We caused more water to be thrown over her; then she recovered her
senses, opened her eyes, and cried, ’O cursed executioners! You are
killing me! You are killing me!’ But nothing more would she say.
"Seeing which, and that she persisted in her denial, we ordered the
torturer to proceed to the torture by jerks.
"He accordingly hoisted her ten feet from the ground, and when there we
enjoined her to tell the truth; but whether she would not or could not
speak, she answered only by a motion of the head indicating that she
could say nothing.
"Seeing which, we made a sign to the executioner, to let go the rope,
and she fell with all her weight from the height of ten feet to that of
two feet; her arms, from the shock, were dislocated from their sockets;
she uttered a loud cry, and swooned away.
"We again caused water to be dashed in her face; she returned to
herself, and again cried out, ’Infamous assassins! You are killing me;
but were you to tear out my arms, I would tell you nothing else.’
"Upon this, we ordered a weight of fifty pounds to be fastened to her
feet. But at this moment the door opened, and many voices cried,
’Enough! Enough! Do not torture her any more!’"
These voices were those of Giacomo, Bernardo, and Lucrezia Petroni. The
judges, perceiving the obstinacy of Beatrice, had ordered that the
accused, who had been separated for five months, should be confronted.
They advanced into the torture chamber, and seeing Beatrice hanging by
the wrists, her arms disjointed, and covered with blood, Giacomo cried
"The sin is committed; nothing further remains but to save our souls by
repentance, undergo death courageously, and not suffer you to be thus
Then said Beatrice, shaking her head as if to cast off grief—
"Do you then wish to die? Since you wish it, be it so."
Then turning to the officers:—
"Untie me," said she, "read the examination to me; and what I have to
confess, I will confess; what I have to deny, I will deny."
Beatrice was then lowered and untied; a barber reduced the dislocation
of her arms in the usual manner; the examination was read over to her,
and, as she had promised, she made a full confession.
After this confession, at the request of the two brothers, they were all
confined in the same prison; but the next day Giacomo and Bernardo were
taken to the cells of Tordinona; as for the women, they remained where
The pope was so horrified on reading the particulars of the crime
contained in the confessions, that he ordered the culprits to be dragged
by wild horses through the streets of Rome. But so barbarous a sentence
shocked the public mind, so much so that many persons of princely rank
petitioned the Holy Father on their knees, imploring him to reconsider
his decree, or at least allow the accused to be heard in their defence.
"Tell me," replied Clement VIII, "did they give their unhappy father
time to be heard in his own defence, when they slew him in so merciless
and degrading a fashion?"
At length, overcome by so many entreaties, he respited them for three
The most eloquent and skilful advocates in Rome immediately busied
themselves in preparing pleadings for so emotional a case, and on the
day fixed for hearing appeared before His Holiness.
The first pleader was Nicolo degli Angeli, who spoke with such force and
eloquence that the pope, alarmed at the effect he was producing among
the audience, passionately interrupted him.
"Are there then to be found," he indignantly cried, "among the Roman
nobility children capable of killing their parents, and among Roman
lawyers men capable of speaking in their defence? This is a thing we
should never have believed, nor even for a moment supposed it possible!"
All were silent upon this terrible rebuke, except Farinacci, who,
nerving himself with a strong sense of duty, replied respectfully but
"Most Holy Father, we are not here to defend criminals, but to save the
innocent; for if we succeeded in proving that any of the accused acted
in self-defence, I hope that they will be exonerated in the eyes of your
Holiness; for just as the law provides for cases in which the father may
legally kill the child, so this holds good in the converse. We will
therefore continue our pleadings on receiving leave from your Holiness
to do so."
Clement VIII then showed himself as patient as he had previously been
hasty, and heard the argument of Farinacci, who pleaded that Francesco
Cenci had lost all the rights of a father from, the day that he violated
his daughter. In support of his contention he wished to put in the
memorial sent by Beatrice to His Holiness, petitioning him, as her
sister had done, to remove her from the paternal roof and place her in a
convent. Unfortunately, this petition had disappeared, and
notwithstanding the minutest search among the papal documents, no trace
of it could be found.
The pope had all the pleadings collected, and dismissed the advocates,
who then retired, excepting d’Altieri, who knelt before him, saying—
"Most Holy Father, I humbly ask pardon for appearing before you in this
case, but I had no choice in the matter, being the advocate of the
The pope kindly raised him, saying:
"Go; we are not surprised at your conduct, but at that of others, who
protect and defend criminals."
As the pope took a great interest in this case, he sat up all night over
it, studying it with Cardinal di San Marcello, a man of much acumen and
great experience in criminal cases. Then, having summed it up, he sent a
draft of his opinion to the advocates, who read it with great
satisfaction, and entertained hopes that the lives of the convicted
persons would be spared; for the evidence all went to prove that even if
the children had taken their father’s life, all the provocation came
from him, and that Beatrice in particular had been dragged into the part
she had taken in this crime by the tyranny, wickedness, and brutality of
her father. Under the influence of these considerations the pope
mitigated the severity of their prison life, and even allowed the
prisoners to hope that their lives would not be forfeited.
Amidst the general feeling of relief afforded to the public by these
favours, another tragical event changed the papal mind and frustrated
all his humane intentions. This was the atrocious murder of the Marchese
di Santa Croce, a man seventy years of age, by his son Paolo, who
stabbed him with a dagger in fifteen or twenty places, because the
father would not promise to make Paolo his sole heir. The murderer fled
Clement VIII was horror-stricken at the increasing frequency of this
crime of parricide: for the moment, however, he was unable to take
action, having to go to Monte Cavallo to consecrate a cardinal titular
bishop in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli; but the day following,
on Friday the 10th of September 1599, at eight o’clock in the morning,
he summoned Monsignor Taverna, governor of Rome, and said to him—
"Monsignor, we place in your hands the Cenci case, that you may carry
out the sentence as speedily as possible."
On his return to his palace, after leaving His Holiness, the governor
convened a meeting of all the criminal judges in the city, the result of
the council being that all the Cenci were condemned to death.
The final sentence was immediately known; and as this unhappy family
inspired a constantly increasing interest, many cardinals spent the
whole of the night either on horseback or in their carriages, making
interest that, at least so far as the women were concerned, they should
be put to death privately and in the prison, and that a free pardon
should be granted to Bernardo, a poor lad only fifteen years of age,
who, guiltless of any participation in the crime, yet found himself
involved in its consequences. The one who interested himself most in the
case was Cardinal Sforza, who nevertheless failed to elicit a single
gleam of hope, so obdurate was His Holiness. At length Farinacci,
working on the papal conscience, succeeded, after long and urgent
entreaties, and only at the last moment, that the life of Bernardo
should be spared.
From Friday evening the members of the brotherhood of the Conforteria
had gathered at the two prisons of Corte Savella and Tordinona. The
preparations for the closing scene of the tragedy had occupied workmen
on the bridge of Sant’ Angelo all night; and it was not till five
o’clock in the morning that the registrar entered the cell of Lucrezia
and Beatrice to read their sentences to them.
Both were sleeping, calm in the belief of a reprieve. The registrar woke
them, and told them that, judged by man, they must now prepare to appear
Beatrice was at first thunderstruck: she seemed paralysed and
speechless; then she rose from bed, and staggering as if intoxicated,
recovered her speech, uttering despairing cries. Lucrezia heard the
tidings with more firmness, and proceeded to dress herself to go to the
chapel, exhorting Beatrice to resignation; but she, raving, wrung her,
hands and struck her head against the wall, shrieking, "To die! to die!
Am I to die unprepared, on a scaffold! on a gibbet! My God! my God!"
This fit led to a terrible paroxysm, after which the exhaustion of her
body enabled her mind to recover its balance, and from that moment she
became an angel of humility and an example of resignation.
Her first request was for a notary to make her will. This was
immediately complied with, and on his arrival she dictated its
provisions with much calmness and precision. Its last clause desired her
interment in the church of San Pietro in Montorio, for which she always
had a strong attachment, as it commanded a view of her father’s palace.
She bequeathed five hundred crowns to the nuns of the order of the
Stigmata, and ordered that her dowry; amounting to fifteen thousand
crowns, should be distributed in marriage portions to fifty poor girls.
She selected the foot of the high altar as the place where she wished to
be buried, over which hung the beautiful picture of the Transfiguration,
so often admired by her during her life.
Following her example, Lucrezia in her turn, disposed of her property:
she desired to be buried in the church of San Giorgio di Velobre, and
left thirty-two thousand crowns to charities, with other pious legacies.
Having settled their earthly affairs, they joined in prayer, reciting
psalms, litanies, and prayers far the dying.
At eight o’clock they confessed, heard mass, and received the
sacraments; after which Beatrice, observing to her stepmother that the
rich dresses they wore were out of place on a scaffold, ordered two to
be made in nun’s fashion—that is to say, gathered at the neck, with long
wide sleeves. That for Lucrezia was made of black cotton stuff,
Beatrice’s of taffetas. In addition she had a small black turban made to
place on her head. These dresses, with cords for girdles, were brought
them; they were placed on a chair, while the women continued to pray.
The time appointed being near at hand, they were informed that their
last moment was approaching. Then Beatrice, who was still on her knees,
rose with a tranquil and almost joyful countenance. "Mother," said she,
"the moment of our suffering is impending; I think we had better dress
in these clothes, and help one another at our toilet for the last time."
They then put on the dresses provided, girt themselves with the cords;
Beatrice placed her turban on her head, and they awaited the last
In the meantime, Giacomo and Bernardo, whose sentences had been read to
them, awaited also the moment of their death. About ten o’clock the
members of the Confraternity of Mercy, a Florentine order, arrived at
the prison of Tordinona, and halted on the threshold with the crucifix,
awaiting the appearance of the unhappy youths. Here a serious accident
had nearly happened. As many persons were at the prison windows to see
the prisoners come out, someone accidentally threw down a large
flower-pot full of earth, which fell into the street and narrowly missed
one of the Confraternity who was amongst the torch-bearers just before
the crucifix. It passed so close to the torch as to extinguish the flame
in its descent.
At this moment the gates opened, and Giacomo appeared first on the
threshold. He fell on his knees, adoring the holy crucifix with great
devotion. He was completely covered with a large mourning cloak, under
which his bare breast was prepared to be torn by the red-hot pincers of
the executioner, which were lying ready in a chafing-dish fixed to the
cart. Having ascended the vehicle, in which the executioner placed him
so as more readily to perform this office, Bernardo came out, and was
thus addressed on his appearance by the fiscal of Rome—
"Signor Bernardo Cenci, in the name of our blessed Redeemer, our Holy
Father the Pope spares your life; with the sole condition that you
accompany your relatives to the scaffold and to their death, and never
forget to pray for those with whom you were condemned to die."
At this unexpected intelligence, a loud murmur of joy spread among the
crowd, and the members of the Confraternity immediately untied the small
mask which covered the youth’s eyes; for, owing to his tender age, it
had been thought proper to conceal the scaffold from his sight.
Then the executioner; having disposed of Giacomo, came down from the
cart to take Bernardo; whose pardon being formally communicated to him,
he took off his handcuffs, and placed him alongside his brother,
covering him up with a magnificent cloak embroidered with gold, for the
neck and shoulders of the poor lad had been already bared, as a
preliminary to his decapitation. People were surprised to see such a
rich cloak in the possession of the executioner, but were told that it
was the one given by Beatrice to Marzio to pledge him to the murder of
her father, which fell to the executioner as a perquisite after the
execution of the assassin. The sight of the great assemblage of people
produced such an effect upon the boy that he fainted.
The procession then proceeded to the prison of Corte Savella, marching
to the sound of funeral chants. At its gates the sacred crucifix halted
for the women to join: they soon appeared, fell on their knees, and
worshipped the holy symbol as the others had done. The march to the
scaffold was then resumed.
The two female prisoners followed the last row of penitents in single
file, veiled to the waist, with the distinction that Lucrezia, as a
widow, wore a black veil and high-heeled slippers of the same hue, with
bows of ribbon, as was the fashion; whilst Beatrice, as a young
unmarried girl, wore a silk flat cap to match her corsage, with a plush
hood, which fell over her shoulders and covered her violet frock; white
slippers with high heels, ornamented with gold rosettes and
cherry-coloured fringe. The arms of both were untrammelled, except far a
thin slack cord which left their hands free to carry a crucifix and a
During the night a lofty scaffold had been erected on the bridge of
Sant’ Angelo, and the plank and block were placed thereon. Above the
block was hung, from a large cross beam, a ponderous axe, which, guided
by two grooves, fell with its whole weight at the touch of a spring.
In this formation the procession wended its way towards the bridge of
Sant’ Angela. Lucrezia, the more broken down of the two, wept bitterly;
but Beatrice was firm and unmoved. On arriving at the open space before
the bridge, the women were led into a chapel, where they were shortly
joined by Giacomo and Bernardo; they remained together for a few
moments, when the brothers were led away to the scaffold, although one
was to be executed last, and the other was pardoned. But when they had
mounted the platform, Bernardo fainted a second time; and as the
executioner was approaching to his assistance, some of the crowd,
supposing that his object was to decapitate him, cried loudly, "He is
pardoned!" The executioner reassured them by seating Bernardo near the
block, Giacomo kneeling on the other side.
Then the executioner descended, entered the chapel, and reappeared
leading Lucrezia, who was the first to suffer. At the foot of the
scaffold he tied her hands behind her back, tore open the top of her
corsage so as to uncover her shoulders, gave her the crucifix to kiss,
and led her to the step ladder, which she ascended with great
difficulty, on account of her extreme stoutness; then, on her reaching
the platform, he removed the veil which covered her head. On this
exposure of her features to the immense crowd, Lucrezia shuddered from
head to foot; then, her eyes full of tears, she cried with a loud voice—
"O my God, have mercy upon me; and do you, brethren, pray for my soul!"
Having uttered these words, not knowing what was required of her, she
turned to Alessandro, the chief executioner, and asked what she was to
do; he told her to bestride the plank and lie prone upon it; which she
did with great trouble and timidity; but as she was unable, on account
of the fullness of her bust, to lay her neck upon the block, this had to
be raised by placing a billet of wood underneath it; all this time the
poor woman, suffering even more from shame than from fear, was kept in
suspense; at length, when she was properly adjusted, the executioner
touched the spring, the knife fell, and the decapitated head, falling on
the platform of the scaffold, bounded two or three times in the air, to
the general horror; the executioner then seized it, showed it to the
multitude, and wrapping it in black taffetas, placed it with the body on
a bier at the foot of the scaffold.
Whilst arrangements were being made for the decapitation of Beatrice,
several stands, full of spectators, broke down; some people were killed
by this accident, and still more lamed and injured.
The machine being now rearranged and washed, the executioner returned to
the chapel to take charge of Beatrice, who, on seeing the sacred
crucifix, said some prayers for her soul, and on her hands being tied,
cried out, "God grant that you be binding this body unto corruption, and
loosing this soul unto life eternal!" She then arose, proceeded to the
platform, where she devoutly kissed the stigmata; then leaving her
slippers at the foot of the scaffold, she nimbly ascended the ladder,
and instructed beforehand, promptly lay down on the plank, without
exposing her naked shoulders. But her precautions to shorten the
bitterness of death were of no avail, for the pope, knowing her
impetuous disposition, and fearing lest she might be led into the
commission of some sin between absolution and death, had given orders
that the moment Beatrice was extended on the scaffold a signal gun
should be fired from the castle of Sant’ Angelo; which was done, to the
great astonishment of everybody, including Beatrice herself, who, not
expecting this explosion, raised herself almost upright; the pope
meanwhile, who was praying at Monte Cavallo, gave her absolution ’in
articulo mortis’. About five minutes thus passed, during which the
sufferer waited with her head replaced on the block; at length, when the
executioner judged that the absolution had been given, he released the
spring, and the axe fell.
A gruesome sight was then afforded: whilst the head bounced away on one
side of the block, on the other the body rose erect, as if about to step
backwards; the executioner exhibited the head, and disposed of it and
the body as before. He wished to place Beatrice’s body with that of her
stepmother, but the brotherhood of Mercy took it out of his hands, and
as one of them was attempting to lay it on the bier, it slipped from him
and fell from the scaffold to the ground below; the dress being
partially torn from the body, which was so besmeared with dust and blood
that much time was occupied in washing it. Poor Bernardo was so overcome
by this horrible scene that he swooned away for the third time, and it
was necessary to revive him with stimulants to witness the fate of his
The turn of Giacomo at length arrived: he had witnessed the death of his
stepmother and his sister, and his clothes were covered with their
blood; the executioner approached him and tore off his cloak, exposing
his bare breast covered with the wounds caused by the grip of red-hot
pincers; in this state, and half-naked, he rose to his feet, and turning
to his brother, said—
"Bernardo, if in my examination I have compromised and accused you, I
have done so falsely, and although I have already disavowed this
declaration, I repeat, at the moment of appearing before God, that you
are innocent, and that it is a cruel abuse of justice to compel you to
witness this frightful spectacle."
The executioner then made him kneel down, bound his legs to one of the
beams erected on the scaffold, and having bandaged his eyes, shattered
his head with a blow of his mallet; then, in the sight of all, he hacked
his body into four quarters. The official party then left, taking with
them Bernardo, who, being in a state of high fever, was bled and put to
The corpses of the two ladies were laid out each on its bier under the
statue of St. Paul, at the foot of the bridge, with four torches of
white wax, which burned till four o’clock in the afternoon; then, along
with the remains of Giacomo, they were taken to the church of San
Giovanni Decollato; finally, about nine in the evening, the body of
Beatrice, covered with flowers, and attired in the dress worn at her
execution, was carried to the church of San Pietro in Montorio, with
fifty lighted torches, and followed by the brethren of the order of the
Stigmata and all the Franciscan monks in Rome; there, agreeably to her
wish, it was buried at the foot of the high altar.
The same evening Signora Lucrezia was interred, as she had desired to
be, in the church of San Giorgio di Velobre.
All Rome may be said to have been present at this tragedy, carriages,
horses, foot people, and cars crowding as it were upon one another. The
day was unfortunately so hot, and the sun so scorching, that many
persons fainted, others returned home stricken with fever, and some even
died during the night, owing to sunstroke from exposure during the three
hours occupied by the execution.
The Tuesday following, the 14th of September; being the Feast of the
Holy Cross, the brotherhood of San Marcello, by special licence of the
pope, set at liberty the unhappy Bernardo Cenci, with the condition of
paying within the year two thousand five hundred Roman crowns to the
brotherhood of the most Holy Trinity of Pope Sixtus, as may be found
to-day recorded in their archives.
Having now seen the tomb, if you desire to form a more vivid impression
of the principal actors in this tragedy than can be derived from a
narrative, pay a visit to the Barberini Gallery, where you will see,
with five other masterpieces by Guido, the portrait of Beatrice, taken,
some say the night before her execution, others during her progress to
the scaffold; it is the head of a lovely girl, wearing a headdress
composed of a turban with a lappet. The hair is of a rich fair chestnut
hue; the dark eyes are moistened with recent tears; a perfectly farmed
nose surmounts an infantile mouth; unfortunately, the loss of tone in
the picture since it was painted has destroyed the original fair
complexion. The age of the subject may be twenty, or perhaps twenty-two
Near this portrait is that of Lucrezia Petrani the small head indicates
a person below the middle height; the attributes are those of a Roman
matron in her pride; her high complexion, graceful contour, straight
nose, black eyebrows, and expression at the same time imperious and
voluptuous indicate this character to the life; a smile still seems to
linger an the charming dimpled cheeks and perfect mouth mentioned by the
chronicler, and her face is exquisitely framed by luxuriant curls
falling from her forehead in graceful profusion.
As for Giacomo and Bernardo, as no portraits of them are in existence,
we are obliged to gather an idea of their appearance from the manuscript
which has enabled us to compile this sanguinary history; they are thus
described by the eye-witness of the closing scene—Giacomo was short,
well-made and strong, with black hair and beard; he appeared to be about
twenty-six years of age.
Poor Bernardo was the image of his sister, so nearly resembling her,
that when he mounted the scaffold his long hair and girlish face led
people to suppose him to be Beatrice herself: he might be fourteen or
fifteen years of age.
The peace of God be with them!