The best known image of Beatrice is a popular portrait supposed to have been by Guido Reni. Not quite up to par with the master, it is now thought to be by an artist of his circle, the daughter of his long time assistant, Elisabetta Sirani.
Poignantly serene in the face of calamity, this portrait of a young woman has been reproduced ad infinitim in oil, on porcelain, in print, and other media for centuries. There is some speculation that the painting may have influenced Vermeer and his three-quarter view of “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” but it wasn’t til over one hundred years after Vermeer that the portrait appeared out of a Baroque fog in the eighteenth century, mentioned in a catalogue of paintings owned by the Barberini family in 1783 and attributed thusly: ‘Picture of a head. Portrait, believed to be of the Cenci girl. Artist unknown.’ A few years later a copy of the catalogue attributes the painting to Guido Reni. (source: Beatrice’s Spell by Belinda Jack) While most art historians currently dispute both attributions, that of being Beatrice and painted by Reni, the portrait fills a vacuum and remains our most tangible link to an enduring legend.
Shelley read of her on a visit to Rome and sought out the portrait in person. He was moved deeply by her face and her story, and penned the tragedy “The Cenci.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley, on the Portrait of Beatrice Cenci:
I endeavored whilst at Rome to observe such monuments of this story as might be accessible to a stranger. The portrait of Beatrice at the Colonna Palace is admirable as a work of art; it was taken by Guido during her confinement in prison. But it is most interesting as a just representation of one of the loveliest specimens of the workmanship of Nature. There is a fixed and pale composure upon the features; she seems sad and stricken down in spirit, yet the despair thus expressed is lightened by the patience of gentleness. Her head is bound with folds of white drapery from which the yellow strings of her golden hair escape and fall about her neck. The moulding of her face is exquisitely delicate; the eyebrows are distinct and arched; the lips have that permanent meaning of imagination and sensibility which suffering has not repressed and which it seems as if death scarcely could extinguish. Her forehead is large and clear; her eyes, which we are told were remarkable for their vivacity, are swollen with weeping and lustreless, but beautifully tender and serene. In the whole mien there is a simplicity and dignity which, united with her exquisite loveliness and deep sorrow, are inexpressibly pathetic. Beatrice Cenci appears to have been one of those rare persons in whom energy and gentleness dwell together without destroying one another; her nature was simple and profound. The crimes and miseries in which she was an actor and a sufferer are as the mask and the mantle in which circumstances clothed her for her impersonation on the scene of the world.
After bitter disappointment at the plays failure on the stage, Shelley writes:
In writing The Cenci my object was to see how I could succeed in describing passions I have never felt, and to tell the most dreadful story in pure and refined language. The image of Beatrice haunted me after seeing her portrait. The story is well authenticated, and the details far more horrible than I have painted them. The Cenci is a work of art; it is not colored by my feelings nor obscured by my metaphysics. I don’t think much of it. It gave me less trouble than anything I have written of the same length.
Mary Shelley reminisces:
When in Rome, in 1819, a friend put into our hands the old manuscript account of the story of The Cenci. We visited the Colonna and Doria palaces, where the portraits of Beatrice were to be found; and her beauty cast the reflection of its own grace over her appalling story. Shelley’s imagination became strongly excited, and he urged the subject to me as one fitted for a tragedy. More than ever I felt my incompetence; but I entreated him to write it instead; and he began and proceeded swiftly, urged on by intense sympathy with the sufferings of the human beings whose passions, so long cold in the tomb, he revived, and gifted with poetic language. This tragedy is the only one of his works that he communicated to me during its progress. We talked over the arrangement of the scenes together….
And it was no production artist accident when it showed up hanging on a wall in Aunt Ruth’s apartment in David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive.