In Rome, a sixteen-year-old Beatrice Cenci—with the help of her stepmother, Lucrezia, and her brother Giacomo—arranged the murder of her father, the cruel and sadistic Count Cenci, who had persecuted Beatrice and probably raped her. The tragic story of the beautiful patricide has been popular with artists across Europe for the past couple centuries, including Percy Bysshe Shelley, Stendhal, and Antonin Artaud.
September 11, 1599. All night long workmen on the Piazza prepared the scene of the tragedy, setting up a huge scaffold with a block and a mannaia (meaning “an axe”, and possibly a mechanism resembling the guillotine). At eight o’clock the prisoners left the prison, accompanied by the Company of Misericordia bearing a great crucifix, and Comforters from the Brotherhood of St. John the Beheaded, who accompanied those about to be decapitated, robed in black, and baskets to bear away the head. Each of the women wore a black taffeta veil. Lucrezia was the first to step up to the scaffold, and after several crowd shuddering strokes, the executioner brandished her head to the people, then wrapped it in black taffeta.
Execution of Beatrice Cenci The machine was set up again, the blood washed off, and the executioner went to get Beatrice. She mounted the scaffold and unaided placed her head beneath the mannaia, so as to avoid being touched by the executioner. But the execution was deliberately delayed in order allow Pope Clement VII to give the doomed girl absolution from a distance. Unnerved by waiting, Beatice got off the plank and almost stood up. Then she finally had to put her head back on the block. The blade fell.
Thereupon, while Beatrice’s head rolled on one side of the machine, the body rose up on the other, falling forward again with great violence upon the mannaia. The executioner next held up her head for the enjoyment of the crowd and then gave the body to the brotherhood of St John the Beheaded. While one of the brothers was attempting to place the body in a coffin, it slipped from his hands and fell from the platform, shedding a great deal of blood to the ground. In the fall, the entire torso came out of its clothes, so that now being totally covered with dust and blood, a good deal of time had to be spent in washing it.