About Italian artist Caravaggio. The Maestro and the Maiden by Frederick J. Chiaventone. Following the trail of an ancient and disturbing legend in the heart of Rome.
As the wheels of our aircraft rumbled to a stop on the tarmac at Leonardo Da Vinci Airport it was overcast and drizzling in Rome. Appropriate, I thought, a perfect atmosphere to begin a long delayed visit to probe the mystery of a wealthy and doomed beauty in the city where her curious story unfolded more than 400 years previously. Little did I know that this tangled tale would lead to an unusual connection with one Michaelangelo Merisi – the tempestuous artist known as Caravaggio.
A few hundred years is an admittedly short time in the history of Rome where the Coliseum, the Pantheon, and the Forum still stand. Here Julius Caesar died suddenly in a knife-wielding circle of his imagined friends. Here the Emperor Nero kept the masses entertained by circuses while ruthlessly slaughtering potential enemies. And here too is where the Borgia family ruthlessly exercised their incredible political power. Murder, sex, and betrayal seem almost a natural part of Roman history.
On our first day in Rome I walked up one of the hills in the Parioli district and gazed out over the pines and poplars to the dome of St. Peters’ and the Vatican -– an institution which was intimately involved in the affair of Beatrice Cenci (1577-1599) and remains notoriously reluctant to open its records on that case to public scrutiny. In the matter of the Cenci case the Church is especially secretive as it is a case which to this day will incite an animated argument among Roman society’s cognoscenti. Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s involvement in the affair is less apparent and, as with so much of his life, still shrouded in mystery.
For those unfamiliar with the L’affaire Cenci a few details should suffice to stimulate curiosity and to get the intellectual juices flowing. In the year 1599 a man reputed to be the most wealthy individual on the peninsula -– Count Francesco Cenci –- died instantly when he fell from the balcony of his country villa. The Vatican, its coffers all but drained by its involvement in messy political affairs and religious wars in France, had come to depend on Cenci’s financial assistance and was understandably stunned by the Count’s sudden death. It was a most untimely accident – or so it seemed.
Not that Count Cenci was a particularly pious man –- quite the reverse –- an arrogant brawler, a lecher, a libertine, he and his male offspring were frequently guilty of flagrantly libidinous and even violent behavior which, although censored by the Church, was often excused with a slap on the wrist. The Cenci, as one might imagine, had money –- lots of it. The Vatican, having been deeply involved in resolving the Huguenot-centered troubles in Catholic France, had nearly exhausted its fiscal resources and thus was heavily dependent upon Cenci’s involuntary largess. In late 16th century Rome Count Francesco Cenci was not only the richest man on the peninsula, he was notoriously sinful. In an age of exorbitant ‘indulgences’ his ample supply of money went a long way towards buying forgiveness. Thus, when Cenci’s battered corpse was discovered at the foot of his country home important individuals within the Holy See were understandably dismayed by the sudden death of their prize cash cow.
Despite the long reach of the Vatican’s influence, the Rome of the Cenci was, in current parlance, little more than a small town of about 60,000 souls. With the resultant intimacy of Roman society it was a foregone conclusion that virtually everyone knew everybody else’s business –- and frequently their darkest secrets. But no one really knew anything about the Cenci. The Cenci family home was a veritable hive of secrets. Not only were they incredibly wealthy, the males of the breed were notorious for their bad behavior -– brawling, public drunkenness, womanizing, dueling –- they freely indulged their most animal passions with blithe indifference to society. The Cenci women were less well-known but appear to have been veteran intriguers themselves. The boys’ step-mother Lucrezia was alternately a shrew and a beaten dog while the Count’s daughter Beatrice was an entirely different story.
Beatrice Cenci was notorious in her own right for her flawless, almost angelic beauty, a beatific deportment, her intelligence and education, and for the almost inexplicable fact that at the age of 22 she was as yet unmarried despite a host of eager suitors. No one, it seems, could understand why the fabulously wealthy and irascible Count Cenci chose to keep Beatrice largely out of the public eye and off the marital market. Whatever his real reasons the imagined rationale for Cenci’s actions had tongues wagging in Roman society. There were rumors of physical abuse and even of incest -– a shocking sin even in a city awash in sin.
Whatever dysfunctions existed in this family all credible proof of public, and private, speculations thereon died with the Count. Throughout his turbulent life Count Cenci had been indiscreet and self-indulgent. His flagrant sexual escapades and combative behavior often brought him into conflict with the Papal authorities -– conflict which he was quick to resolve by throwing money at the problem. Upon his death it was evident to Church officials that the late Count’s family, especially noting the young men’s proclivity for outrageous behavior and their shocking disdain for religious authority, could not be counted on to provide for the Vatican’s future financial needs.
An investigation into Cenci’s death convened by the Church quickly –- perhaps too quickly, perhaps too conveniently — concluded that the Count had not died as the result of an accidental fall from the balcony of his country home, as initially believed, but had been murdered at the direction and with the connivance of his own family members. Two mysteriously absent family retainers were suspected in the plot and quickly hunted down and killed by authorities, but not before one of them had implicated the late Count’s immediate family. The fate of the surviving family members was not to be so quickly resolved. The Vatican conveniently arranged that the case would be heard not by the civil authorities but by Church authorities. The Cenci family found themselves arrested, tortured to extract confessions, and indicted by an ecclesiastical court which speedily found them all guilty –- the widow of murder, the children of patricide.
Cenci’s widow and dissolute sons elicited little public sympathy, but caught up in this sordid web of conspiracy and murder was his daughter Beatrice. The riveting and demure Beatrice Cenci quickly became a cause celebre’ and a popular lightning rod. The trial was the talk of Roman society at all levels and Beatrice’s personal defense attorney was none other than the famous trial lawyer Prospero Farinacci –- a one-eyed paragon who was reputed never to have lost a case. The bulldog-like lawyer pulled out all the stops in a spirited defense of the beauteous, sympathetic and immensely popular Beatrice. In her defense Farinacci advanced the claim that she had been physically abused and raped by her licentious father and was an innocent bystander in the plot to murder him.
The city’s population was outraged by the prospect of incest and quickly sided with Beatrice believing that her involvement in the case, even had she been actively involved in the plot, could easily be excused as ‘justifiable homicide’ in defense of her honor. The prosecution was not moved by this defense nor was the ecclesiastical court open to any plea of ‘extenuating circumstances.’
The trial was to be a turning point for Farinacci’s fortunes and for the Vatican’s. Pope Clement VIII was not one to be moved by sentiment -– especially where sentiment stood in the way of the Church’s solvency. The Pope’s intimate involvement as an influence peddler, a power broker and peacemaker among warring European factions had come close to exhausting the Papal coffers. The Vatican was on the brink of financial ruin. But, were the Cenci family to conveniently disappear, their considerable wealth and properties would all be forfeit to the Vatican. Thus it is not surprising that all appeals for mercy and forgiveness fell on deliberately deaf ears. Even the impassioned entreaties of the populace for mercy were disregarded. They proclaimed Beatrice la Vergine Romana (the Virgin of Rome) despite whispers that she had a son by a lover – one of the family retainers implicated in Count Cenci’s death and killed in the hills outside of Rome. All arguments in Beatrice’s favor were for naught. The Pope it seems had taken an ironic name for Clement VIII was not one inclined to clemency, especially where the financial health of the Vatican was concerned. Beatrice was found guilty and condemned along with her family.
The physical boundaries of this remarkable and enduring tale of incest, murder, torture, greed and violent death are oddly circumscribed with the Palazzo Cenci on the edge of the old Jewish quarter and the Vatican and the adjacent Castel San Angelo all within easy walking distance – truly within sight – of each other. The traveler who wishes may easily follow the dim trails left by numerous writers who found themselves drawn inexorably to the scene of the grim story which would appear in their tales. Nor were these men simple scribblers for the tabloids or penny dreadfuls of their time. These were true literary lions – Percy Bysshe Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, and Stendahl –- all were ensnared in their pursuit of the elusive Cenci ghosts.
To this day the Cenci Affair has a strange, hypnotic power on the fertile imagination. The sun rises early in May with the city shrouded in mist and legions of crows cackling and cawing in the pines and poplars of the Parioli district with Rome’s myriad structures of yellow, pink and grey stone beneath red-tiled roofs stretching out into the distance. The trail is there to be followed. Even in Rome’s insane traffic it doesn’t take long to get to the scenes of this dark tale. The Vatican is a prominent feature of the Cenci legend and the Papal apartments there are connected by a high and narrow corridor of brick and masonry, a secret escape route in times of trouble, which runs down to the Tiber and the papal stronghold Castel San Angelo. The Castel San Angelo, which is where the final scene of the Cenci tragedy was played out, began its history as a sepulcher and monument to the emperor Hadrian and was completed the year after his death. Future conflict however found the simple, if massive, tomb transformed into a fortress, Papal apartments, an armory and a grim prison for the Church’s enemies. It is a seemingly squat and singularly ugly round edifice on the banks of the Tiber. When one enters, one follows a long, winding corridor which spirals ever upward and into the bowels of the structure. Electric lights have replaced the sconces which once illuminated the vaulted tunnel with sputtering torchlight.
Coming out into the sunlight one steps into a small courtyard in which the central object is an oversized marble statue of an angel with bronze wings. Beyond the statue an iron-bound door leads back into the tower where, following a winding staircase one emerges on the top of the fortress to a vista which is nothing less than stunning, stretching from the Tiber below out to the nearby Vatican and across the sprawling maze of modern Rome. Above the visitor towers the imposing figure of the Archangel Michael, avenging sword in hand, glaring down at the sinful city that surrounds the fortress named in his honor.
Castel San Angelo is little more than a large round fortress, a central keep surrounded by lower, crenelated walls and punctured by what are referred to as ‘murder holes’ – narrow embrasures to allow defenders to rain rocks, arrows and cauldrons of boiling oil down on attackers. Not a conceit, these defenses have been used repeatedly. More germane to the tale of the Cenci perhaps is the small courtyard known simply as the Execution Place — a cramped, shadowy space which can be observed from the breezeway above and leading back to Clement VIII’s Papal apartments. Did the doomed Beatrice here glance upwards for one last glimpse at the Roman sky? Popular legend, however, has the Cenci plotters dying directly outside the Castel on a scaffold erected and fronting the Tiber’s famous Bridge of Angels and surrounded by a crowd of Roman citizens. One can easily imagine Clement VIII peering intently down from the Papal Apartments to ensure that the deed was done. Beatrice and her step-mother were beheaded, her older brother beaten to a pulp with a sledge hammer, her teenaged brother forced to watch the deaths of his immediate family and then hustled off to a life sentence as a galley slave. Clement VIII was content -– no more Cenci’s existed to dispute his claim to their holdings. Within hours of Beatrice’s severed head appearing in a niche on the Castel San Angelo’s walls the vast Cenci fortune was seized by the Vatican and the Cenci properties quietly found their way into the possession of the Aldobrandini family –- the Pope’s closest relatives.
As might be expected in what was in essence a very parochial and cynical town, tongues soon began to wag about the Cenci Affair. Clement VIII quickly put a stop to the nattering of the crowds issuing a Papal Bull which forbade access to any records of the trial or the proceedings associated with it and which further declared that to even discuss the case was to court excommunication. It was a very deliberate and effective gag rule. The Vatican’s religio-legal instrument remains in effect to this day – over four hundred years after the fact. But the enforcement of this edict has been easier said than done.
We now know that the artist Caravaggio was in the huge crowd of onlookers at the grisly execution. But did his connections go even deeper? Here one may well ask, what had Caravaggio to do with the case? The short answer is that we are still unsure. Shortly after Beatrice’s death the maverick artist completed his marvelous painting “Judith Beheading Holofernes.” A controversial painting in its day, it neatly circumvented the Papal Bull quickly issued by Clement VIII which forbade writing or speaking of the Cenci affair under pain of excommunication. Many cognoscenti today whisper the common rumor that Caravaggio’s ‘Judith’ is in truth Beatrice Cenci and the tyrant ‘Holofernes’ is her deranged and brutal father Count Francesco Cenci. Theories go on to suggest that the pugnacious artist, a notorious scofflaw contemptuous of authority, attempted to flaunt the Vatican’s rulings by not so much talking about the case but by visually portraying his view of the truth of the Cenci affair. In Caravaggio’s version of events Beatrice Cenci is the determined Biblical heroine Judith who slays the bestial and rapacious enemy general Holofernes –- portrayed here by Count Francesco Cenci –- in a selfless attempt to liberate her people from Holofernes’ brutal and thuggish rule. (Note: This was a not uncommon practice of disgruntled artists during the Renaissance, Guido Reni another painter of Beatrice, once portrayed Pope Innocent X as Satan being vanquished by the Archangel Michael in his painting which still may still be viewed in the Church of the Capuchins in Rome. Michelangelo, disgusted by the meddling of the Pope’s representatives during his commission to paint the Sistine Chapel went so far as to paint himself as a flayed man).
Despite, or perhaps because of its controversial nature, the painting of Judith and Holofernes quickly found its way into the private collection of his patron Cardinal Del Monte and was acquired by Cardinal Barberini (later Pope Urban VII) –- another patron of the irascible artist. Today that painting hangs on the wall of the gallery in the Palazzo Barberini (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica) and depicts the Biblical heroine Judith in the act of using a sword to behead the tyrannical enemy leader Holofernes. It also marks a significant change in the artist’s work which has puzzled and intrigued art historians ever since. From the date of that painting’s appearance – within weeks of Beatrice’s execution – Caravaggio’s work becomes ever darker and more sinister. Caravaggio, the brilliant if unpredictable artist, was not known as one who painted portraits to supplement his income –- there are fewer than a half dozen known to have been done by him. Of this half dozen known portraits one was of Prosepro Farinacci –- Beatrice’s lawyer. Evidence of the Count Cenci’s brutality in his own home being overwhelming, a likeness of Beatrice Cenci has even become the ‘poster child’ for child and spousal abuse in Italy with her likeness frequently featured in printed material from Italian groups combating those scourges.
But a few steps from the salon displaying Caravaggio’s work in the Barberini collection is a prominently displayed ‘portrait’ –- whether from imagination or life we are still unsure although experts contend the former is more likely –- by Guido Reni (1575-1642) entitled ‘Beatrice Cenci.’ It was this alleged portrait that inspired the 19th century romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to pen his disturbing play ‘The Cenci’ – which is performed to this day. In more recent times Lucio Fulci, famed Italian director of horror and slasher films, even made a film of the affair entitled “Beatrice Cenci” (1969). While popular with much of the filmgoing public it was not a hit with more religious viewers who booed it loudly in theaters. The Vatican perhaps alarmed at the negative publicity generated by the film’s thinly veiled allegations of Church avarice, was not amused and Fulci, not surprisingly, soon found himself excommunicated for his troubles. Composer Berthold Goldschmidt’s opera “Beatrice Cenci” still plays to cosmopolitan audiences. Another version of the Cenci legend was written for and performed on BBC Radio in 2006.
To this day shadows and reminders of the Cenci Affair remain visible to those who look for them. The Vatican, of course, is within an easy stroll of the Castel San Angelo which continues to loom large over the wide, brown Tiber. On the opposite bank of the Tiber and less than a mile away can be found the Palazzo Cenci. It sits right on the edge of the old Jewish quarter and within yards of the river – a site reserved for only the wealthiest and most powerful Roman families. The Cenci home is an odd thing – tucked right on the edge of the former Jewish ghetto it is easily missed unless one knows what one is looking for. Once found it is an imposing but strangely secretive structure. The entrance is marked by a massive, arching breezeway framing a long flight of steps that pass between the huge stone mastiffs that flank and gaze icily down at the visitor. Up a flight of stairs and placed on a pedestal at the far end of this tunnel an ancient sculpture of Leda and the Swan stands mute witness to the tragedy that unfolded here. It is a disturbing choice of ornament by the Count Cenci for in the ancient legend Zeus, king of the Greek gods, desired the beautiful mortal woman Leda and transformed himself into a swan to force his attentions on her – a mythological analogy for rape and incest at its worst. It is almost as if the huge, fierce stone dogs warn the visitor – this is a place of great wealth and power but there is evil within – or, in the words of Dante Alighieri “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here!”
No longer a private residence, the Palazzo Cenci is now home to the Iowa State University College of Design’s Rome Program. Here, with permission, one can easily wander through the imposing palazzo and observe that Count Cenci must indeed have been a wealthy and powerful if unpopular fellow. Passing around the side of the building in the narrow street below, a gaze upward reveals stunning frescoes adorning the cassetted ceiling of one of the interior rooms – guarded from the street below by intricate but formidable iron grillwork. In a chilling counterpoint, a sinister and weather-beaten stone mask adorns the rear wall of Palazzo Cenci -– it is a representation of the mythical serpent-haired Gorgon Medusa slain by Perseus (and subject of another painting by Caravaggio). One cannot help but feel the seeds of doubt nagging at the subconscious – one cannot help but wonder; which was the true Beatrice Cenci -– the gorgon-like murderess beheaded for her crimes, or the beautiful innocent of Shelley, Stendahl, Charles Dickens and a small host of other besotted authors, poets and librettists, the innocent girl brutally sacrificed to ensure the Vatican’s fiscal health. Were this not enough, to this day there remains an ethereal reminder of the entire sordid affair. It is said, and one can easily find the references to this in any guidebook, that every year, on the anniversary of her execution, the ghost of Beatrice Cenci, her severed head in her hands, is doomed to walk the Bridge of Angels in front of the Castel San Angelo. It happens every year on September 11th. It is perhaps a date fated for grim events.
Back at my brother’s apartment in the exclusive Parioli District I sat surrounded by books pondering the strange tale of Beatrice Cenci. While composing my notes on the Cenci affair, Mike Loades, an old friend from London rang up. A veteran director and host for BBC, Mike was in town to shoot a piece for television on the Roman Legion’s use of mastiff’s as war dogs. But, he confessed, he simply could not stay away from the Cenci legend. As soon as he could break away from his production he was headed for the Castel San Angelo to see what he could see. Later that evening we talked about the case over dinner and he was clearly as puzzled and intrigued as anyone. The strange case of Beatrice Cenci is indeed contagious.
Later I glanced out the window of my brother’s apartment to the imposing structure across the street – in a beautiful park-like setting stands the Portuguese Embassy to the Vatican. Its soaring poplar trees are usually abuzz with a murder of crows – huge, black and grey-winged birds that caw and cackle throughout the day. On this day sheets of light rain poured down in a perfect punctuation to this very strange and oddly appropriate weather this summer. I found my thoughts drifting back to Beatrice Cenci and recalled my sister-in-law Ana’s amazement when a couple of nights before the usually vacant embassy grounds had teemed with visitors for a very exclusive and unprecedented affair. Ana is herself Portuguese and has taught financial instruments at university in Lisbon. She too is intrigued by the legend of la Vergine Romana.
As we sat on the balcony that previous evening we could hear music drifting in from the grounds across from us. “Listen,” said Ana. “My God, she’s singing Fado.” The haunting strains of a woman’s voice drifted across from the embassy singing the heartbreaking Portuguese songs of love, loss and heartbreak. It is almost as if they were singing for Beatrice Cenci – bemoaning the Vatican’s complicity in her tragic, early death. “Fado is made for tragedy and remorse,” Ana remarked. “With Beatrice, the Vatican will sing those songs forever.” And now one can only wonder what secrets are locked forever in the recently discovered skull that once housed Caravaggio’s febrile brain. Is there more to the story of Beatrice Cenci and Michaelangelo Caravaggio? Was the ruffian artist one of Beatrice’s rumored lovers? I suspect we shall never know but that doesn’t stop speculation.