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.

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.