This Aristocratic Family Turned on its Abusive Patriarch

This Aristocratic Family Turned on its Abusive Patriarch

Khalid Elhassan - November 14, 2018

In the late 16th century, Renaissance Rome was rocked by a sensational murder whose victim was a dissolute and depraved aristocrat, Count Francesco Cenci, and whose culprits were his own offspring and family. However, the public’s sympathies were not with the victim, who was widely reviled and despised, and judged to have had it coming. Sentiments lay instead with the count’s murderers, whose actions were perceived as justifiable, particularly after the authorities had repeatedly failed to rein him in.

Chief repository of the public’s sympathies was the murdered count’s daughter, Beatrice Cenci, who had endured years of physical and sexual abuse by her father. Although she had reported the count’s depravities to the authorities, his status as a noble had shielded him from accountability, and he was left free to continue his abuses. Desperate, Beatrice organized a conspiracy to murder her father. Although the public clamored that she be pardoned, the then reigning Pope Clement VIII had her and her co-conspirators executed in 1599. To the people of Rome, she became a symbol of resistance against an overbearing nobility, and her legend endures to his day, driven in no small part by the conundrum between her legal guilt versus her moral innocence.

This Aristocratic Family Turned on its Abusive Patriarch
Beatrice Cenci. Alchetron

Francesco Cenci’s Depravities

Count Francesco Cenci was a nasty piece of work, and no two ways about it. An aristocrat who had inherited a vast fortune, he was an all around horrible human being, to the point of cartoonish villainy. Among other things, he routinely beat his mistress into performing sexual acts she objected to. He confessed to molesting young boys. He mistreated his servants, and literally starved them until a papal court intervened and ordered that he feed them. He physically abused his first and second wives, as well as his sons. He also committed incest with his youngest daughter, Beatrice.

However, the count’s status as a nobleman ensured that he got away with it, repeatedly escaping punishment, or receiving a slap on the wrist sentence at worst. Beatrice informed the authorities that her father was routinely raping her, but they did nothing. Worse, word got back to Francesco Cenci that his daughter had reported him, so he sent her and his second wife – Beatrice’s stepmother – away from Rome, to one of his castles northeast of Rome.

The Cenci castle, known to locals as La Rocca, was a combination of fortress and country house, that stood atop a steep crag, looming over a village below. There, around 7 on the morning of September 9th, 1598, a woman named Plautilla Calvetti would testify, she was combing flax at her home nearby, when she heard shouting outside that she could not make out at first. She rushed out to see what was going on, and an acquaintance called out to her: “Plautilla! Plautilla! They are screaming in the castle!

This Aristocratic Family Turned on its Abusive Patriarch
‘The Admonishment of Beatrice Cenci’, by Charles Robert Leslie. Art Painting Artist

Plautilla was the wife of Olimpio, La Rocca’s castellan, or steward, and was herself employed at the castle as a housekeeper. She ran up to La Rocca, and when she got there, she saw Beatrice Cenci looking down at her from a window, appearing distraught but “strangely silent“, while her stepmother, Lucrezia, could be heard wailing and screaming inside. Plautilla was told by some men that Count Francesco was dead, apparently having fallen from a partially collapsed wooden balcony, roughly 40 feet above ground.

From the start, something did not seem right. For one thing, when rescuers reached the corpse, it felt cold to the touch, suggesting that the count had been dead for hours, and not freshly expired as a result of his fall. For another, after his corpse was recovered and cleaned up, it was discovered that its head had sustained wounds inconsistent with the fall from a balcony. Among them was a deep puncture wound above the eye, that had clearly resulted from a strike with a sharp instrument. Suspicions of foul play immediately arose, and were justified, for Count Francesco’s death had resulted from a sloppy murder conspiracy.

This Aristocratic Family Turned on its Abusive Patriarch
Study of Beatrice Cenci, 1866, by Julia Margaret Cameron. Wikimedia

The Path to Conspiracy

Beatrice Cenci (1577 – 1599) was the youngest of seven children – five sons and two daughters – sired by Count Francesco Cenci on his first wife. The Cenci were an ancient Roman patrician family, that claimed descent from the gens Cinci. The family lived together in the count’s palace in Rome, but when the mother, whom the count had routinely abused, died when Beatrice was seven years old, she and an elder sister were sent to be raised by nuns in a monastery.

A brutal man, Count Cenci used his inherited wealth to indulge his tastes for depraved violence with impunity, which earned him the hatred of Rome’s people. His depravity – although not that directed against his own family – eventually caught up with and landed him in trouble with the authorities, and got him imprisoned. His aristocratic lineage and wealth, however, ensured that he was treated with leniency. While their father was temporarily locked up, Beatrice’s elder siblings found ways to escape the abuse. One of Beatrice’s brothers, Giacomo, simply disowned his wealthy father and left, two other brothers got themselves killed in duels, and her elder sister successfully petitioned the pope for permission to marry without her father’s consent.

Beatrice was less fortunate, however: she told the authorities that her father had raped her numerous times, but they did nothing. When he got out of jail, he promptly shipped Beatrice, along with his second wife, Lucrezia, and his youngest son by her, Bernardo, out of Rome and to his stronghold, La Rocca. Secluded in his castle, and away from the eyes of the authorities in Rome, Count Cenci’s perversities increased, and the lives of his daughter and second wife became even more hellish.

This Aristocratic Family Turned on its Abusive Patriarch
Scene from a 1969 movie, ‘The Conspiracy of Torture’, depicting the murder of Count Francesco Cenci. Filmena SRL

In addition to repeatedly raping her, Beatrice’s father made her scrape scabies from his bodies, including from off his testicles. He also made his daughter and her stepmother share a bed with him. In desperation, Beatrice wrote to her elder brother, Giacomo, beseeching his aid. She also contacted the authorities, once again, but once again, they did nothing. Worse, the count found one of Beatrice’s letters begging for help, and beat his daughter bloody in retaliation.

Beatrice decided that the only way to end the nightmare that was her life was by ending the life of her father. So she began planning to bring that about. Her stepmother, Lucrezia, had also had enough of count Cenci’s abuse, and she agreed to help. So did Beatrice’s brothers, Giacomo and Bernardo. Beatrice was the plot’s ringleader, and she enlisted the help of the castellan, Olimpio Calvetti, by seducing him. She also hired another accomplice, a man named Marzio, to act as a hitman.

This Aristocratic Family Turned on its Abusive Patriarch
Castel Sant’Angelo, in front of which Beatrice Cenci and her accomplices were executed. Wikimedia

Murder and Aftermath

The plan was relatively straightforward. Olimpio Calvetti and Marzio were to kill Count Francesco Cenci in his bed, than toss him out a balcony, staging the scene to make it look like an accidental fall. Accordingly, on the night of September 8-9, 1598, Beatrice slipped her father a sleeping potion to knock him out. Olimpio and Marzio then snuck into his bedroom, held him down, and drove an iron spike into his head. They then dressed his body, and threw him over the balcony’s edge, breaking a part of it to make it look like it had collapsed. The duo then gathered the bloody bedsheets, and fled.

However, the killers had done a sloppy job in covering their tracks. The fatal wound in the count’s head did not correspond to a wound from a fall, and while Olimpio and Marzio had taken the bloody bedsheets, they neglected to wipe blood spatters from elsewhere in the count’s bedroom. It did not take the investigators long to realize that Francesco Cenci had been murdered, nor did it take them long to realize that the culprits were his own family members.

The papal authorities arrested Beatrice, her stepmother Lucrezia, her brothers Giacomo and twelve year old Bernardo, and her lover and hitman, Olimpio, and tossed them all in jail. The other hitman, Marzio, fled into the mountains, but was tracked down and killed by one of Count Cenci’s relatives. The people of Rome, who knew what kind of man Francesco Cenci had been, figured he deserved his fate, and sympathized with Beatrice and her coconspirators. However, Pope Clement VIII, ruler of Rome and the papal states where the crime had taken place, had other ideas. Viewing patricide as a heinous crime, and worried that leniency might encourage other children to murder their parents, the pope authorized the torture of the accused.

This Aristocratic Family Turned on its Abusive Patriarch
Beatrice Cenci, by H. G. Hosmer. Wikimedia

They began with Olimpio, the lowest socially ranked of the conspirators, but he kept mum, refusing to confess or implicate his lover, Beatrice, until he died during the harsh interrogation. Beatrice’s brother Giacomo was not as tough, however. He had not been at the Cenci castle on the night of the murder, but under torture, he spilled out that his younger sister had been the chief culprit, and that she had planned everything. The rest of her family also broke under torture, and Lucrezia and young Bernardo pinned the blame on Beatrice as the ringleader. Beatrice was made of sterner stuff, however, and withstood the torture, including getting stretched on the rack, without admitting to anything. The confessions extracted from the rest of the family were sufficient, however. In a subsequent trial, all were found guilty, and were sentenced to death.

The people of Rome protested, and managed to get the execution postponed, but it was only a temporary reprieve, and Pope Clement VIII insisted that the sentences be carried out. On September 11th, 1599, the Cencis were taken for execution in front of the Sant’Angelo castle in Rome. Giacomo got the worst of it, getting tortured in a cart en route to the scaffold. Once he got there, his head was smashed in with a mallet, then his corpse was quartered. Lucrezia and Beatrice were then executed, more swiftly and mercifully, their heads chopped off with an ax. At the last minute, twelve year old Bernardo, who had been forced to watch the deaths of his mother and siblings, was spared execution, and sentenced to life as a galley slave. However, he was freed a year later. The Cenci property was confiscated – and given to Pope Clement VIII’s family.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ancient Origins – The Spirit of Beatrice Cenci: A Tale of Terrible Injustice in Ancient Rome

Atlas Obscura – The Femme Fatale Whose Tragic End Festers in the History of Rome

Encyclopedia Britannica – Beatrice Cenci

Milestone Rome – The Tragic Story of Beatrice Cenci

Wikipedia – Beatrice Cenci