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.
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!”
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.